My Novel

Clinging to Life

Synopsis – 
 

“Clinging to Life” is a heart breaking literary fiction told from the perspectives of the three women from the Matsuoko family: young Michiko, her mother Shizuko, and grandmother Azumi. The reader is whisked on a journey that ripples through time from the days of the Samurai, through the Great War, into present day Japan and America.

When a family tragedy blindsides Shizuko, she sends her nine-year-old daughter Michiko to live with her grandparents in Japan. Three years later, still in Japan, Michiko is immersed in the country’s true disaster, the 2011 tsunami. In the days following the destruction of their village, Michiko searches for her lost dog, her grandfather (Ojiisan) fumbles to the pine grove hoping the youngest saplings survived, and her grandmother (Obaasan), slips into a catatonic state. An epic adventure and a testament to both the fallibility and amazing will of the human spirit as each character must answer the question, “when you lose everything, what do you have left?”

 

 

Read Chapter One


 

偉大な侍

The Great Samurai 

 

—————         Michiko         —————

 

“Why,” was my favorite question, and I probably asked that question 300,000 times a day to anyone within a two-foot radius, which most often was my mother. She never had a good enough answer.

“Because,” she would say.

“But why?” 

“Just because, Michiko,” she’d reply with a sigh of exhaustion.

I’d stamp my foot, place my hand on my right cocked hip in defiance and stare at her to see if she would look up from her sewing or reading. She never did.

“Enough, Michiko. I’m tired. Go play,” she’d say, and I would storm away terribly unsatisfied. I was three.

At twelve I was still asking too many questions and still standing with my hand on my hip, too smart for my own good. But after three years of living with my grandparents in rural Japan, I was learning when it was better to be silent. And that sometimes there was no answer to the question why.

And on that day, as I floated with Ojiisan[1]in an old rowboat on a lake where the forest used to be…on that day as the restless tide rocked us back and forth…on that day with the debris of our destroyed village all around us…I knew it was better to be silent.

I waited for Ojiisan to speak first, even if I did have a million questions and a million more worries. It could have turned into a very long wait as Ojiisan didn’t really speak to me. No more than a one-word scolding now and then. “Don’t,” he would say, or just “No.” Sometimes he sort-of verbally spat at me with a quick tst-tst, which I learned also meant no.

Not because I was a bad child. Curious, yes, but not bad. Maybe he didn’t like me, or maybe he was just uncomfortable around a nine-year-old girl. Living in America I had never met my grandparents, and it was only when I first arrived in Japan that they discovered they had a granddaughter.

But while he didn’t seem to care to know me, I yearned to know him. I watched him from across the room or across the field and soaked him up like a sponge. He was not a tall man and one day I would easily grow past his 5’5” height. His thin hair was pure gray, his will strong and his body fit for his almost seventy years, and I could tell he was very wise. I did wonder if he ever smiled.

On that day, he laid in the bow of the old rowboat, wracked with the flu, wrapped in blankets that seemed to swallow him whole. We sat for what seemed like hours without speaking. My stomach growled from hunger but then turned over with a little sea sickness. I wasn’t used to the constant rocking of the rowboat. And I was thirsty. So thirsty.

The unforgiving sun beat down on us and without one small bit of shade, sweat dripped down the back of my neck. I shielded my eyes with my hands and scanned the horizon for Kichiro, my only real friend in the world. A glimpse of his happily wagging tail would have calmed my anxious heart, but I didn’t seem him anywhere, just piles and piles of debris in every direction. The tsunami had destroyed the village leaving behind the stuff of our lives, half submerged in a swamp of sea water and smothered in thick black mud. I hadn’t seen Kichiro in two days. I was desperate to find him and prayed that he was safe, I prayed he wasn’t stuck under the debris somewhere, I prayed he wasn’t injured or hungry. I prayed and prayed.

With great effort Ojiisan shifted his tired body into an upright position and rocked the old rowboat. Still he said nothing. Puddles on the bottom rippled from his movement and chipped flecks of red paint swirled in the water and stuck to my soaked school shoes. As I stared at my black penny loafers I realized they were the only pair of shoes I had left. My only white socks were soaked up to my knees. I wore all the clothes I had, the blue-plaid school uniform, the white blouse, and the blue sweater, which I had wrapped tightly around my waste. Every other thing I had owned was somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, swept away by the tsunami. Along with our house and the rest of the village.

Ojiisan looked around and sighed, then closed his eyes as if he wished the misfortune away. Maybe he prayed, too. I waited, sitting there on the small wooden seat and looked around, wondering if help would come, wondering if my mother knew? She was so far away in Hawaii, had the news reached her yet? How would she know we were okay? 

When Ojiisan opened his eyes again, he squinted up sideways at the blazing sun, so oddly hot on that March day, and shook his head in frustration. He trembled. Fatigued from the flu or maybe as disheartened as I?  His head bobbed up and down in a nod, as if he agreed to a conversation he only had in his mind. Then he slid his hand along his belt to the old wood sheath that housed the knife on his hip. He rested there for a long moment in conflicted contemplation. 

After another few minutes he nodded again, then pushed the weathered sheath that housed the dagger down the length of his cracked leather belt. With a final tug it slid off into his hands. With utmost care, he pulled the dagger from its wooden home, and the double-edged-blade caught the light and glinted in the sun. It was a beautiful knife, called a Tantō, and was somehow still as sharp that day as when it was first forged and carried by the Great Samurai Yuudai in the 12thcentury.

The Tantō had been handed down to the first-born son in the Samurai’s lineage from generation to generation for almost a thousand years. It was no wonder Ojiisan held the dagger with such reverence. It was a sacred family relic. He had told me the amazing story about the Tantō, twice already, and how he believed the dagger possessed the mystical powers of its original owner. In the forty years he carried the knife on his belt he had reached for it just one time, and when he needed help, he believed the Spirit of the Samurai had saved his life. 

Then Ojiisan did something I was not prepared for. He raised his arms and reached them out to me, the dagger laying in his hands like an offering. “Take it, Michiko, use it,” he said. “I pray the Great Samurai will help us today.”

I didn’t understand. Ojiisan had forbidden me to even be near the dagger, let along touch it. “It is a powerful weapon, Michiko, and little girls must not touch,” he had said many times. “You must listen to me and obey, Michiko.”

He sounded so much like my mother, “Little girls don’t play with knives.” How could she not see that there were boxes to be carved into forts and frogs needing to be dissected?

Ojiisan moaned from the effort of holding the blade, his arms also heavy with flu. He instructed me again to take the dagger and to whittle him a point of lead on the pencil I had found in the wreckage. I couldn’t understand the big Japanese words he used so he would draw me a picture. It was a good idea, but I hesitated. Not just because of his warning to never touch the dagger, but because the Tantō had been created to kill, not to whittle pencils.

I scooched backward on the seat, away from the knife. But Ojiisan leaned toward me and pressed the Tantō into my small hand. I wanted to give it back, but his face flared red as his lungs coughed up a spasm of searing need. I reached out to him. He shook me off and leaned back into the bow of the old rowboat, wrapped the blankets around his shoulders and directed my attention to the blade in my hand. I was to go about my task and leave him be. I looked straight into his eyes for a confirmation, and for the first time in three years he looked straight back at me. His eyes were clouded with fever but clear with intention.

I took a deep breath and considered the dagger’s beauty, and its danger, and passed the weapon between my two hands back and forth. The wooden hilt felt much heavier than I imagined. But in truth, it also felt natural to hold, as if I had held it a million times before. Which both surprised me, and not. From the very first time I saw it, I felt connected to it, like in some strange way it always belonged to me. I had never even seen such a weapon before, but somehow, I knew how to hold it and use it, like a magic coursed through the Tantō. And it was then that I truly believed Ojiisan’s story and I welcomed the Spirit of the Samurai to help me on that day. As the dagger danced in my hands and razor-thin shavings of wood flaked away from around the lead, I started to believe that maybe a simple pencil could be the answer to our prayers.

I remember that day so well, even if it was ten years ago. Not only because we floated in a rowboat in our flooded village, not only because I felt the Spirit of Yuudai all around me, but because on that day…Ojiisan touched my hand for the first time.

He watched me carve the pencil with approval and I perceived a softening in his wrinkled features. Not really a smile, but close enough. His kindness was unfamiliar to me as he was neither a sentimental nor an emotional man. So I fumbled, nervous from his attention, and pushed my ability into clumsiness. And then, with his gentle touch, just on that soft spot between my thumb and index finger, with his gentle touch he slowed my whittling. My concentration slipped away from the knife to that spot, to that soft place where Ojiisan’s fingers rested…and the dagger jumped. As did my heart. The blade nearly sliced through my fingers. We both gasped, then sighed with relief. The weapon demanded the respect of my full attention.  

Three years earlier, when I had first arrived in Japan, my fingers were less fortunate. Ojiisan caught me watching him from across the room as he placed the Tantō on the high shelf in the closet for the night. He warned me then to never touch it. Ever! I raised my right hand in that very moment and swore with my whole heart, then glanced up at him with curiosity dancing in my eyes and asked him, “Why?” 

And the epic story of the Tantō poured out of him as a cautionary tale. Hours later, the clock said we had been up well past midnight, but I wasn’t tired. I lay there wide awake with the characters alive in my mind. I wanted to ask him about the Tantō again and again, but I didn’t have the Japanese words yet to speak with him. Nor the courage.

A month later when Ojiisan was cleaning the dagger, he stepped away to fetch a fresh towel and left it unsupervised on the kitchen table. I felt compelled. I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and merely brushed my fingertips on the shiny metal to feel its coolness and came away with four bloody slashes.

Obaasan[2]fussed over me nervously, cleaned the cuts and applied four little band aids on my four little fingers. I was so grateful for her kindness and smiled at her with my thanks. Then I slid my zaisu[3]right up next to hers where I sat practically in her lap.

Ojiisan’s face was red with anger, so I swore again to never touch the dagger. He fumed on and on about the many dangers of the knife and paced through the kitchen, scolding me as he waved his arms this way and that like warnings flags.

“Are you listening, Michiko? Do you remember why I asked you not to touch the dagger?” he said.

He did not wait for my reply.

“I have told you once before. Must I repeat myself? Must I tell you the story again? You must have respect, Michiko. The Tantō is something to be feared,” he said. 

But I wasn’t afraid, not of Ojiisan or the knife. I squirmed in the zaisu and wondered if I had touched the blade on purpose. I loved this story. And I did listen, to every single word, most especially for the moment when the Samurai loses his sword and is nearly killed by the man-in-black.  

I snuggled closer to Obaasan, the closest we had ever sat next to each other in my first month in Japan. In truth, she just sat in her chair, it was I who needed to be close to her. She was soft and round, her once black hair painted gray by time. It softly framed her small face in a short bob. She looked like my mother, or rather my mother looked like her, I guess. I didn’t realize how desperately I missed my mother and just as my emotions were about to release into tears, Ojiisan cleared his throat. I was instantly pulled back into the small yellow kitchen, sitting next to Obaasan who smelled like flowers and dumplings.

I was so delighted to hear the suspenseful story of the Samurai again I could barely hide my grin. Ojiisan must have noticed. I wonder now if he enjoyed telling the story as much as I loved listening to it. He slowed his pace, lowered his tone, which served the expert telling of the epic tale, and he started from the very beginning.

 

“No one knows for sure why it happened the way that it did. The legend has grown over the past hundreds of years. I will tell it to you, again, Michiko, but you must remember it, and you must have respect.”

 

I nodded as a sign of my promise to remember and have respect and settled in for the journey. 

 

“It begins in the 12th-century, almost a thousand years ago on an unfortunate evening when a great tragedy disturbed the peace of the nation and became the catalyst for a war that lasted half a decade.

My great, great, great, great, great relative Kunio toiled day after day in the harsh fields of Japan, under a hot sun and in the freezing rain. He farmed wheat in shallow unyielding fields. Unlike the others who grew rice, his efforts merely kept he and his wife poor and hungry.

Although worn and weary after a full day of work, he did not retire. All night long he exercised muscle onto his lanky body and practiced the art of weaponry, sleeping no more three hours a night before his day began again. Even with all his efforts, his skill was mediocre, but The Great Samurai Yuudai observed Kunio’s commitment as masterful. Thus, he earned a coveted position as a servant in the Samurai’s household. 

The warriors of the Samurai’s clan were skilled and powerful horsemen. With their many talents in the art of war they swiftly overpowered those who created rebellions. For such craft and devotion, the King rewarded the men handsomely. Especially Yuudai, who suffered an arrow just near his heart, thus saving the King on the battlefield with his own body. Yuudai fell to his death! But a moment later he rose again as if the bloody wound were nothing more than a scratch.

The King was beyond grateful for Yuudai’s love and protection, and bequeathed him opulent lands, a rugged stable for the dozen gifted horses, and a sturdy home for he and his many servants. As another sign of his eternal gratitude, the King arranged a marriage for Yuudai to the young daughter of a nobleman. Yuudai bowed with respect for the generous gift, but he did not care about a wife, only about the political alliance the marriage would provide his King.

Letters had not been exchanged nor had he visited his intended. On his marriage night, he staggered into his chambers to consummate the union with the stench of his long ride still clinging to him. He entered the bed chamber already annoyed, anticipating a shy, pious girl devastated to be matched to such a heathen, who begged to be returned to her mother.

But when he saw his intended for the first time, all his anger disappeared. She waited with patient elegance on the side of his bed; her white nightdress glowed gold from the blazing fire. Long waves of soft brown hair framed her strong jaw and cascaded down her back. 

She knew and loved the Samurai from afar for all her fourteen years of life and did not bow her head in modesty. She would be his wife, she would care for his household and bear him an heir. She knew her place and it was a regal place. She smiled at him with dark chocolate eyes then stood to remove his riding clothes from his tired body. When fully undressed, she led him to a hot bath that awaited his arrival. He could have forced himself onto her in that moment, but she moved and spoke like that of a high priestess, he thought. Perhaps from a past life, he wondered. So he treated her as such. She bathed him with soft sponges and spicy oils, and only when the water turned black and his body shone clean did she invite him into their marriage bed. 

His emotions ran wild, cautioning him as if he were being led into a trap. But he called up his courage and allowed the emotions to overpower him. He never yearned for love and did not realize his need for love, until his young wife taught him about such things. She so captivated his body, mind and soul, he felt at peace, content, even happy.

Some storytellers say it was this very happiness that became his greatest weakness.

A little over a year later they welcomed their first-born son. When his wife was well enough, they strolled together through the grove, their tiny bundle safely tucked in a soft blanket, wiggling and cooing in his mother’s arms. At just three-weeks-old the boy already showed focus and presence, with a thick of black hair on his tiny head. His son so enchanted Yuudai, the Samurai did not perceive the threat hidden just beyond the trees.

Peace had filled the calm nights in the nation for many years and without the constant call to fulfill his purpose as a warrior, perhaps the Great Yuudai grew less tuned to his craft. A large bulk of a heroic man, his strength could not be questioned. But on that humid moonlit evening, as he strolled with his wife and son and listened to the crickets sing like a million baby rattles, as jasmine filled his lungs and his affection swelled with his every step, he did not hear the branch snap under the man’s foot. 

That foot carried an agile man-in-black who sprang from the dark of the trees and ambushed the Samurai with weapons drawn. Yuudai felt his sword lifted away, too easily pilfered from his belt, which shocked him awake with shame. Luckily, he always carried his Tantō dagger, the very same weapon that lays there on the kitchen table. You can see, Michiko, it is a small instrument with which to defend his family.

But Yuudai’s mind snapped to attention and his body responded with action. He knew, in fact, it was a coward who provoked this battle, from the act of having snuck up from behind. The Samurai leapt into combat and slayed the pathetic man-in-black with one deliberate slash of the dagger. Not one muscle tensed when a second man jumped onto the path. Weak men, afraid to show their faces, he thought. With a quick stab into the man’s lungs, Yuudai eliminated the second threat. However, during the few seconds he engaged the second man in combat, a third man slipped onto the path who separated him from his family. Still with no hesitation, Yuudai fingered the Tantō behind his back in preparation to throw it with his precision of excellence. 

But when the spineless combatant placed the Samurai’s wife and child in front of him as a shield, the Great Yuudai gasped. Just a hint of a gasp. But in that infinitesimal moment when time stopped, in that slight pause when just a suggestion of fear brushed up against a tiny corner of his mind, the man-in-black slit his wife’s throat. Yuudai seared with agony as he watched his beloved crumble to the ground. The man-in-black then seized the infant by its leg and yanked it from the safety of its soft blanket. A feeling Yuudai never knew before took shape as terror in his whole body. And during the few seconds when he tried to reclaim his power and presence, the man-in-black stabbed his only son three times and dropped him atop his dead mother’s body. 

Yuudai fell to his knees as if already dead. He tossed the dagger aside in surrender and prayed that his fate be swift. To die would be a gift from the gods, for his heart of stone that he carried into battle was crushed.”

 

My Japanese vocabulary was rusty, and I had trouble keeping up with all the big words Ojiisan used, but I understood well enough, and the sadness I felt for the Great Samurai burst through me in a pant of tears. My own heart was held together by a piece of tape, being so far away from my mother. Even after a full month in Japan she hadn’t written once, nor phoned. I emailed her a dozen times a day with no response as she promised. My heartache tugged tears down my face.

Obaasan urged Ojiisan to stop and signaled to me to go to bed with a nudge.

I stood up out of respect to my grandmother’s command, but I didn’t want to go to bed.  We couldn’t stop there, in the middle of the story. As I pushed my zaisu in toward the low table I whispered in perfect Japanese, “Ojiisan, would you please finish the story. I won’t cry, I promise.”

My grandparents both turned to me with eyes open and brows raised. Those few words were more than I had said since the day I arrived. It visibly surprised them both. After a short pause and a nod from Obaasan, Ojiisan plunged forward toward the end of the tragic tale.

 

“The man-in-black sauntered over to the defeated Samurai, grabbed his top knot in his fist and forced the Samurai’s head upward, to look at his butchered wife and child. The man-in-black waited an interminable amount of time, ridiculing the Samurai with laughter and reveling in the torture. The sight of his family’s bloodied bodies would be the last moments of Yuudai’s life.

He straightened his spine and curled his toes underneath him in preparation for his coming death. As he closed his eyes on what was once a beautiful world, as he inhaled his last breath, he heard a dagger whistle passed him in flight, just above his head. His eyes snapped open and he watched the knife lodge itself up to the hilt in the assailant’s neck. More perfectly targeted than ever anticipated. Blood shot from the carotid; the wound was deep and deadly.

Do you remember my relative Kunio? He swore his life to the Samurai. In love and duty he followed Yuudai many strides behind, simply honored to be in the Samurai’s presence. He waited nearby for any instruction of service he could attend to. Yuudai was a graceful warrior, so shrewd in his art that two men were already dead before Kunio woke himself from his paralyzed fear. And when the Samurai tossed aside the Tantō in surrender, it landed near enough to Kunio’s feet and awakened him to the battle. 

The thud of the dead man-in-black hit the ground and echoed throughout the country, perhaps even over the oceans to the other side of the world. It was an astonishing moment! Kunio saved the Samurai’s life! But a look of rage flashed in his master’s eyes. Kunio had interfered in the Samurai’s battle, interfered in his fate, interfered in his destiny! Kunio knew he was doomed for such an act. The servant scrambled down to his knees, bowed in deep reverence, and waited for his inevitable death.

But the Samurai did not rise. He knelt there, frozen in time and space. For how long, it is unclear, some say days, some say weeks. Some say that summer turned into fall and into winter. And even as rain and snow showered down upon him, the Samurai remained unmoved. His toes flared red in his sandals as they were still curled under him in the hero pose he had taken for his death. Eventually they faded to white and settled in a deathly blue. Still, Yuudai did not stir. 

The holy men came and draped his family in funeral rights and cloths. When they began their prayers for the men-in-black, Yuudai snarled pure venom from his soul. The monks yielded to the warning and tried to counsel Yuudai. But he ignored them and slipped deeper into the abyss in his mind. The townspeople crept around the edges of the path to mourn the fall of his great family. They brought food and drink and kept vigil day and night. But no one dared enter the circle of death that surrounded Yuudai and Kunio. 

Kunio’s body ached! He did not have the skill of patience, but he dared not move. Every muscle burned in anguish and every breath rose sporadically with gasps as if the next one would not come. Be he swore, until his master stirred, he would not either. During the epic hours, days, weeks, or months that passed, Kunio held no other thought in his mind than his love for Yuudai. That love so filled him with peace, he eventually eased into a stillness only experienced in meditation by the holy men. Gratitude heated his near frozen body, he no longer felt pain, nor did his stomach rumble from hunger or thirst. He waited. And waited. 

When the great Samurai finally rose in one graceful movement upward, the thickened crowd rumbled, then hushed just as quickly, as the man they all knew as Yuudai no longer appeared present in the Samurai’s sandals. The man they saw shook with a maddened mind. He strode the few meters to where the man-in-black lay dead in the dirt, knelt by his body and tore the mask from his face. He seared his visage into his whole being. The visage of the man who slayed his family. Through his bared teeth Yuudai swore. He swore he would search through every lifetime for this coward’s soul until he revenged his wife and child…thus setting a curse in motion that caused the Great Yuudai a troublesome eternity. 

The Samurai stood, and for several long moments prayed for the courage to retrieve, once again, his stolen sword. A Samurai believed his sword held his soul and to be separated from his life breath meant death in-and-of-itself. He should never have allowed such a coward to defeat him in this lifetime. He feared he would never be forgiven.

Finally, in a swift fluid motion he bent down, grasped the weapon in both hands and swung it in wide arches. The sword moved of its own volition, again alive in the hands of its master. Yuudai merely followed it toward its next mission.

Kunio realized the time had come. His insignificant life flashed before his eyes, and he bowed in shame and surrender. He bowed deeper and begged the gods to forgive his many sins in this lifetime and prayed for a better incarnation. But when the Samurai reached Kunio, the death blow he expected did not come. Instead, the Great Yuudai asked Kunio to raise his face. The small crowd gasped as Yuudai blessed him with a heartfelt commendation of his courage. Kunio’s actions were equal to his own clansman who would have also defended him in battle. He then renamed Kunio, Raiden, after the Japanese mythical god of thunder, for the knife that killed his assailant had appeared and disappeared before him like lightening. 

Yuudai then dropped to his knees in front of Raiden, and as if all at once, the entire crowd also knelt in deep respect with mouths agape. Yuudai begged Raiden to pray for his family’s souls, for his beloved wife and innocent son just minutes old with no sin for such an unjustified death. He begged Raiden to help him find forgiveness and to banish the seething hatred from his heart. He knew he would die with it and that he would have to make amends in his next life. He begged Raiden to pray, and Raiden prayed.

After a long moment of silence, Yuudai stood once again, caring not about the tears that streamed down his face. He bequeathed Raiden his every penny and his every possession, and with great honor that would have been called ceremony, Yuudai presented Raiden his sword. He then walked back to the dead man and retrieved the dagger from his throat. As tears poured from eyes that never experienced such pain, he knelt by the bodies of his beloved family. He wiped the blood from the blade on the hem of his robe and raised his eyes one last time to the heavens. It appeared to all those present that he prayed, and while he spoke no words aloud, they all claimed he begged for forgiveness, all the while accepting his cursed fate. He hurled a long howl of injustice to the heavens, then in one swift movement, so fast and so precise that many did not see it, he cut his stomach and fell to his death.

War broke out, for the men-in-black had provoked revenge, and for over five years the clans clashed around the country. But this is where the story takes a meandering path as the many truths have been infused with many fictions. Some say Raiden carried Yuudai’s sword into battle and fought with the Samurai’s clansman, his actions valiant, his skill beyond understanding. Some say they saw the great Yuudai fight next to Raiden as if fully incorporated. His clansmen feared not the apparition and welcomed the fierce support from the Samurai’s ghost. They watched with amusement as the enemy laid their weapons down in terrified surrender. 

In the many years following his death the townspeople saw visions of The Great Yuudai in the forest and on the mountain paths. They noted each sighting as a blessing in their historical records. While no one understood why he appeared when he did, there were hundreds of personal stories in those old early days. The best storytellers say that the Samurai continued his earthly walk to pay for his sins, to do good deeds until he burned off his cursed karma. And his deeds were indeed very good. After the war, no danger, nor ill befell Raiden or his family, our family, Michiko, and it has been over nine-hundred years.

Already late in life, Raiden’s wife birthed seven healthy sons, who all grew into powerful, compassionate men. Their dozens of children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren continue the lineage, and the family has and will thrive through the rest of all time. My father Isamu is from this very lineage, so you are also part of it, Michiko. With such honor comes great responsibility. 

The Samurai’s sword was a dangerous weapon in the modern day so the family donated it to a museum where it still lives encased in glass for all the world to admire. The Tantō however, the very same one that lays on the kitchen table, was passed down to the first-born son in my family in every generation. On my tenth birthday, when I was about your age, Michiko, my father’s father gifted the dagger and my ancestor’s story to me, just as I am telling it to you.

 As a young impetuous boy, I did not understand the gift. Of course, I swore to honor the legend, but then I tossed the dagger into a chest of childhood playthings and forgot about it. Over two decades later, I married your Obaasan and we moved into this small house. Obaasan took charge of unpacking our belongings, but I felt an urge, a compulsion to find that one chest. I unorganized Obaasan’s attempts of a simple move and finally found the dagger tucked under other childhood memories. At the age of ten, I could not have understood the responsibility, nor did I have the respect the dagger demanded. But when I held the Tantō for the second time, as a young man in my early thirties, its history filled my mind as if I heard this ancient tale that very same day. 

As you can see, it is a considerable weapon, sharp enough to cut a hair lengthwise. I succeeded at that rudimentary experiment. But I, neither wealthy nor strong, felt so very different than the long line of warriors in Raiden’s history. I admired the ancient legend, but I questioned the tale’s validity. My own good fortune felt overlooked. 

Before I realized the mess I had made of our few belongings, Obaasan shooed me out of my remembrances and out of the house. But instead of wrapping the Tantō again in its cloth housing, I felt an impulse to wear it that day. As a gentle man, I had used knives as a tool, but never held nor wielded a weapon in my young life. Unconsciously, or perhaps intuitively, I still attached the wood sheath to my belt and set out for the grove. I remember how natural and comfortable the weapon felt against my hip.   

I grew up in the grove and shared the forest with the wild animals without fear. And just that once, on that chance day when I wore the dagger on my hip, I needed it. I slipped it out from its wooden sheath and instantly knew its weight and line. Without so much as one lesson in weaponry, I fingered the handle behind my back as if I held the knife a million times before. My body turned and pitched, my arm arched, and the dagger flew out of my hands, directly into the heart of a rabid wolf, stopping the savage attack that would have surely ended my life.

It seemed like an eternity before my next breath came and then my knees buckled and dropped me to the ground. The precision with which the kill laid the animal down unnerved me.  The strike so pure, not even a whimper escaped.

And then I saw him. Just two meters away, resting on one knee near the dead wolf. Hundreds of years had passed since any vision of the Samurai had been recorded. Modern day bustled about, and that sort of thing only happened in stories. But when I caught my absent breath once again, I realized he was there, The Great Yuudai, lovingly releasing the wolf’s soul to the heavens. He then stood with grace, immense in his stature perhaps eight or nine feet tall, wearing full battle regalia. He looked directly at me with tear filled eyes, bowed his whole body toward me, then turned and walked away. As he ventured deeper into the thicket, he faded into nothingness.

I will not lie, I shook with fear even though my heart assured me I was safe. He was there. He gifted me the blessing of my life. I do not know why. From that day forward, I vowed to pray for him, every day. I begged the gods, after 900 years, to please bless Yuudai with grace. I asked if they would please release his soul from his karmic debt and reunite him with his great love. In all my years, and it’s been almost fifty more since that day, I never saw Yuudai again. I can only hope my prayers have been heard and answered.” 

 

Only our quickened breathing filled the quiet kitchen. No one spoke for a long time, our hearts lost in the tragic tale. Ojiisan admitted over the years his failed attempts to understand and reconcile the events of that day, especially for the inspiration to find and wear the dagger. Only time would reveal his destiny and the reason for the notable miracle.

When I first heard the story, and that second time too, as I nursed my four bloody fingers, I also vowed to pray for the Great Yuudai and bowed my head in prayer that very moment. And on that hot March day, as we floated in a rowboat in our devastated village, as I whittled the lead of the pencil with the sacred Tantō, I sent the Samurai another blessing and asked for his guidance. How could I take on this responsibility at twelve-years-old? I prayed for his help in my task. I carved the pencil with great focus and moments later presented Ojiisan a point of lead that could write a novel. How did we get there, I wondered, to that very moment when we needed the strength and wisdom of the Great Yuudai more than ever? 

[1]Ojiisan – Grandfather

[2]Obaasan – Grandmother

[3]Zaisu – a Japanese chairwith no legs but a normal chairback, used around low Japanese tables