My Novel

Clinging to Life

Synopsis – 
 

“Clinging to Life,” is a literary fiction set in Japan during the 2011 tsunami that decimated the northeast coast of the island. The story is a testament to both the fallibility and amazing will of the human spirit, sprinkled with high drama and mysticism, and narrated by the three women of the Matsuoko family: young Michiko, her mother Shizuko, and her grandmother Azumi. 

The reader is whisked on a journey from the days of the Samurai in the 12th century, through the Great War, into present day Japan and America. A fast read at approximately 80K words.

When a family tragedy blindsides Shizuko, she sends her nine-year-old daughter Michiko to live with her grandparents in Japan. Thus, Michiko is immersed in the 2011 tsunami that in just three minutes destroyed the northeast coast of Japan and many of the people living there. With the guidance of the Spirit of the Great Samurai Yuudai, each member of the Matsuoko family embarks on a personal journey to save themselves from their demons and answer the question, “When you lose everything, what do you have left?” 

The element of water surges through the story as the destroyer of life, but also as a ceremonial blessing, offering the Matsuoko family the chance at a new life.

 

 

Read Chapter One


偉大な侍

The Great Samurai 

 

—————         Michiko         —————

 

“Why?” was my favorite question, which I asked over 300,000 times a day to anyone within a two-foot radius. That person most often was my mother who’s one-word answers lacked any real information.

“Because,” she would say. I’d look to her for more, but nothing more would come.

“But why aren’t there any more dinosaurs? And why is Barney purple? And why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk? And why do I have to invite that girl to my party? And why do you cry, mama?”

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

I’d stamp my foot, place my hand on my right cocked hip and stare at her to see if she would look up from her sewing or reading. I could stand there for an hour and she’d never even stir.

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

Millions of questions poured out of me over the years, with my hand still on my cocked hip, too smart for my own good. But at the age of twelve I learned when it was best to be silent, and that sometimes there was no answer to the question why. 

On that hot March day, in a small fishing village on the east coast of Japan, I floated with Ojiisan[1] in an old red rowboat. On that day, the restless tide rocked us back and forth on a lake where the forest used to be. On that day, surrounded by the debris of our destroyed village, I knew it was better to be silent.

Even if a million questions perched on my tongue and a million more worries crowded my mind. I waited for Ojiisan to speak first. It could have turned into a very long wait as he hadn’t spoken to me much at all while I lived with them. No more than a one-word scolding now and then. “Shinai (don’t),” he would say, or “Ie (no).” Sometimes he sort-of spat at me with a quick “tst-tst,” which I learned also meant no. 

I wasn’t a bad child; I knew how to behave. But I was curious and that often got me into trouble. I don’t think he liked me. I don’t know why? I thought grandfathers loved their granddaughters by default. But given my mother’s estrangement from her parents we hadn’t ever met. It was only when I arrived in Japan that they discovered they even had a granddaughter. My blond hair and blue eyes may have created some doubt that I belonged in his family. I looked like my father; not a hint of Japanese traits in my face.

Ojiisan may not have liked me, but I liked him. I liked how he talked to the trees and how the pines rustled as if in response. I liked how he could tell the weather from looking at the stars. There was a sadness about him, especially around his frown and in his stooped stance. I wanted to know why he was sad and wondered if he ever smiled. He was not a tall man and one day I would grow beyond his 5’5” height. While thin and lanky, his body seemed strong and his will sturdy for his almost seventy years. Gray hair covered the top of his head and deep creases surrounded his dark eyes; I could tell he was very wise.

On that random March day, he laid in the bow of the old rowboat, wrapped in blankets that swallowed him whole. Wracked with the flu he shivered as chills raced through his body; he tried to rest. So, I sat there for a very long time without speaking. My stomach growled from hunger, but I couldn’t eat the bit of rice I had packed in my bookbag. The constant rocking of the boat turned my stomach with sea sickness. And I was thirsty; so very thirsty.

Ojiisan shifted his tired body. It took great effort, but he managed to move into an upright position and rocked us from side to side. Still, he said nothing. Puddles on the bottom of the boat rippled from his movement causing chipped flecks of red paint to swirl in the water and stick to my soaked school shoes. As I stared down at my black penny loafers, I realized they were my only pair of shoes. How would I manage the new landscape without a pair of sturdy boots, I wondered? Then I realized I was wearing all the clothes I had left, my school uniform. The blue-plaid skirt, the white blouse, and the dark blue sweater. My white socks, soaked and dirty, were my only pair. 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.

The sun beat down on us in spiky rays of heat with no small bit of shade for miles and miles in which to take refuge. Sweat dripped down my back and collected behind my knees and still I waited for Ojiisan’s guidance. I shielded my eyes with my hands and scanned the horizon for Kichiro, my only friend in the world. I prayed for a glimpse of his bushy tail wagging in the distance, but all I saw were mountains of debris. The stuff of our lives, half submerged in a swamp of sea water and smothered in putrid smelling black mud. I hadn’t seen Kichiro in two days. My heart raced with desperation. I prayed that he was safe, that a house hadn’t fallen on him. I prayed that he had found something solid to rest on and wasn’t treading the waves of the cold water. I prayed and prayed.

Ojiisan looked around and sighed, then closed his eyes as if he wished the misfortune away. I wondered if he prayed, too. I sat there on the small wooden seat, not saying a word, and wondered if help would come. I wondered if my mother knew. Had the news of the tsunami reached her yet in Hawaii? How would she know we were okay?  

When Ojiisan opened his eyes again, he squinted up sideways at the blazing sun. He shook his head in frustration and trembled, fatigued from the flu, I wondered? Or was he 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, agreeing with himself to carry on. He pushed the weathered sheath down the length of his cracked leather belt. With a final tug, it slid off into his hands. He paused a moment, then with delicate care, he pulled the weapon from its wooden home. The double-edged-blade caught the light and glinted in the sun. It was a striking weapon, fashioned with tremendous skill, called a Tantō. Still as sharp that day as when the craftsman forged it for the Great Samurai Yuudai in the 12th century.

The first-born son in the Samurai’s lineage received the dagger when he turned ten years of age. For almost a thousand years it traveled from generation to generation. No wonder Ojiisan held the dagger with such reverence, like a sacred family relic. I had heard the fantastic story about the Tantō, twice already. The tale mystified me and carried me to a different world. Ojiisan’s ancestors all believed the dagger possessed the mystical powers of a spirit. The Spirit of the Samurai Yuudai. In the forty years Ojiisan carried the knife on his hip, he reached for it once. And in that one time, Ojiisan fought a deathly dual, and the Spirit of the Samurai had saved his life. 

Ojiisan sat there in the old rowboat holding the dagger for many long minutes. Then he did something, something that took me by complete surprise. He raised his arms and reached them out to me; the dagger lay 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 alone 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 you needed a knife to carve a box into a fort, to cut water bugs in half, to dissect frogs? 

Ojiisan moaned from the effort of holding the blade, his arms also heavy with flu. I knew our situation was dire, and I wanted so much to help, but I didn’t understand the big Japanese words he used.

“Look what I found,” I had said not an hour ago. I held up a No. 2 yellow pencil that I found floating in the wreckage. “It’s broken, so it won’t write, but maybe you can scratch your idea into this soft plaster?” I couldn’t even guess where the plaster board had come from. A construction site somewhere in the village? My heart leapt with satisfaction when I found that too.

His eyes seemed to brighten as he nodded in agreement. He would tell me years later how he thought me a clever young girl. He failed at his valiant effort, too weak to press the image upon the plaster. It was then the idea of using the Tantō crossed his mind.

When he finally felt assured in his decision, when he accepted the crude task as worthy of the dagger, he held it out to me and instructed me to whittle him a point of lead. I hesitated and put my hand on my stomach to try to stop my queasiness. I paused, not because of his warning to never touch the dagger. But because the Tantō had been crafted so many hundreds of years ago, to kill, not to carve pencils. 

I was afraid. I scooched backward on the seat, away from Ojiisan, and further 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. As he wrapped the blankets tighter around his shoulders, he 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 confirmation. And for the first time in three years, he looked straight back at me. Fever clouded his eyes, but I also saw his determined intention.

I took a deep breath and considered the dagger’s beauty. And its immense danger. I passed the weapon back and forth between my two hands, surprised by its weight; much heavier than I expected. But in truth, it also felt natural in my hands, 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 had always belonged to me. Without ever having seen such a weapon before, I somehow knew how to hold it. And how to use it. Like a magic coursed through the Tantō right into my hand. It was then that I believed Ojiisan’s story. And it was then that I welcomed the Spirit of the Samurai to help me. I set about my task and the dagger danced in my hands. Razor-thin shavings of wood flaked away from around the lead. And as the black point began to take shape, I started to believe that 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 of our unfathomable circumstances. Not only because we floated in a rowboat in our flooded village. Not only because I felt the profound Spirit of Yuudai all around me. But because on that day, Ojiisan touched my hand for the first time. 

He watched me as I carved the pencil and nodded with approval. His wrinkled features softened, and while it wasn’t a smile, there was a noticeable uplift of his constant frown. His kindness was unfamiliar to me as he was neither a sentimental nor an emotional man. I fumbled, nervous from his attention, and pushed my ability into clumsiness. And then, with his gentle touch, on that soft spot between my thumb and index finger, he slowed my whittling. My concentration slipped away from the knife to that spot on my hand. 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 in bed 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, on a ripe day of rain, as Ojiisan cleaned the dagger in the kitchen, he stepped away for a moment to fetch a fresh towel from the closet. He left the dagger unsupervised on the kitchen table. I felt compelled. I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and brushed my fingertips on the shiny metal to feel its coolness and gasped with pain. I stuffed my four fingers with four bloody slashes into my mouth.  

Obaasan[2] fussed over me with worry pouring out of her. She 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. She smiled back, then fussed some more as she cleaned up the mess. I suppose her smile invited me to slide my zaisu[3] right up next to hers, where I sat practically in her lap. 

Ojiisan’s face glowed 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. He waved his arms this way and that like warning 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. You must fear the Tanto, not treat it like a toy,” 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. In hopes he would tell me the story again. I loved this story. And I did listen. To every single word. I held my breath, waiting for the moment when the Samurai loses his sword and the man-in-black stands over him for the final kill.

Without realizing it, I had snuggled closer to Obaasan. The closest we had ever sat next to each other in my first month in Japan. It was I who needed to be close to her. She was soft and round, the perfect shape and size of a grandmother. Her once black hair shined silver and framed her angled face in a short bob. She looked like my mother, or rather my mother looked like her, I guess. I didn’t realize how much I missed my mother. She was so far away; we hadn’t spoken in a whole month. And as my emotions were about to release into tears, Ojiisan cleared his throat. The rough sound pulled me back into the small yellow kitchen, sitting there next to Obaasan. She smelled like flowers and dumplings. 

The suspenseful story of the Samurai delighted me. I couldn’t wait to hear it again and couldn’t hide my grin. Ojiisan must have noticed. He must have enjoyed telling the story as much as I loved listening to it, I thought. When we were all settled, after Obaasan had poured the tea and sat again in her chair, he lowered his voice and began at the very beginning.

 

“No one knows for sure why it happened the way that it did. The legend has grown long over 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. A great tragedy disturbed the peace of the nation that led to 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 grounds. Unlike the others who grew rice, his grand efforts 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. He slept no more three hours a night before his day began again. Even with all his practices, his skill remained 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 skilled warriors of the Samurai’s clan were powerful horsemen. With their many talents in the art of war, they overpowered rebellions before they could begin. For such craft and devotion, the King showered rewards upon them. Especially Yuudai, who in the last battle had thrown his body in front of a flying arrow aimed for the King. It struck him a just near his heart and dropped him to the ground in death. All gasped, stunned, not by the miraculous saving of the King, but that a moment later the soldier rose again. The oozing wound spurted with blood, but Yuudai acted as if it were nothing more than a scratch. 

The King’s gratitude for Yuudai’s love and protection had no bounds. He bequeathed Yuudai opulent lands and four dozen sheep to graze the grassy plains. Laborers erected a majestic home for him and his many servants. Then turned their craft to the construction of a sturdy stable for the dozen gifted horses. Gifts arrived every month for the rest of the King’s long life making Yuudai powerful and rich. 

As another sign of his eternal gratitude, the King arranged a marriage for Yuudai. He offered the Samurai the young daughter of a nobleman. Yuudai cared not about a wife, what did he need of love. But he bowed with respect for the generous gift. He would make good use of the political alliance the marriage would provide for his King. 

He composed no letters to his betrothed. He sent no gifts, nor did he visit his intended or her family before consummating their union. On their marriage night, he arrived home weary from his travels with the stench of the long ride still clinging to him. He entered the bedchamber already irritated by the duties expected of a husband. He had no time for a shy, pious girl, who cried, devastated by the match to such a heathen. Tears annoyed him and he readied himself to quiet her when she begged return to the loving arms of her mother. 

But when he saw his intended for the first time, all his anger disappeared. Like a flame extinguished with a quick breath that left his intention behind like a trail of smoke. His future bride waited with patient elegance sitting on the side of his bed. A white nightdress flowed to her ankles and glowed gold from the blazing fire. Long waves of soft brown hair fell around her strong jaw and cascaded down her back. His desire surprised him in a way that overtook his forward motion and caused him to pause at the door.

Her name was Kaida. 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 the honor she received to be chosen to stand by his side. Kaida smiled at him with dark chocolate eyes and gleaming white teeth, a mark of position. She stood with grace and walked toward her husband. 

Dismantled by her bold actions and presence, Yuudai crossed his arms over his chest. Without permission, she touched him and lowered his arms to rest at his sides. With loving kindness, she began the ritual of removing his riding clothes from his tired body. When he stood naked in front of her, she did not blush. She looked at him fully without apology, then led him to a hot bath that awaited his arrival. He could have forced himself onto her at that moment, but he had not yet caught his breath. Kaida moved and spoke like that of a high priestess, he thought. From a past life perhaps, he wondered. So, he treated her as such with respect and honor. Not until he slipped into the hot water did he allow his muscles and mind to relax. She bathed him with gentle strokes, with soft sponges soaked in 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! Feelings raced through him, feelings he’d never known before. They confused his thinking and the warrior in him questioned if she led him into danger like a secret foe. Intrigued and curious, he called up the courage to trust his new bride. He chose to allow the unfamiliar emotions to overpower him. Love was not something he allowed in his life. There had never been a yearning, he never realized his need, not until his young wife taught him about such things. Kaida so captivated his body, mind, and soul, he welcomed the happiness that followed. 

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, Tatsuo. An imperial young man who would grow into a powerful dragon. When Kaida was strong enough again, they strolled together through the grove. Their tiny warrior wiggled and cooed in his mother’s arms, tucked into the safety of a soft blanket. At three-weeks-old, the boy already showed focus and presence. His dark eyes searched the world around him, alert with innate wisdom. And when his son looked into Yuudai’s eyes with his innocence and love, he felt bewitched. Tatsuo so enchanted Yuudai, the Samurai did not perceive the threat hidden at the edge of the trees. 

The townspeople revered the Samurai as a considerable man, kind and fair, with unquestionable strength and wisdom. But peace had filled the days and nights in the nation for many years. And without the constant call to fulfill his purpose as a warrior, the Great Yuudai softened. In those days of ease and comfort, he grew less tuned to his craft. And on that humid moonlit evening, as he strolled with his wife and son… as he 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 stranger’s foot. 

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

 

I glanced at the Tanto on the table. Indeed, it was a very small weapon. Too small I thought, to make any real damage. I returned my attention to Ojiisan, knowing what was coming next. Still I sat on the edge of my seat enraptured. 

 

“Yuudai’s mind snapped to attention and his body responded with action. He knew it was a coward who provoked this battle from the act of having snuck up from behind. The Samurai leapt into combat and without any effort, slew the pathetic man-in-black. With one deliberate slash of the dagger his assailant fell to the ground. 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. 

When he looked up from his moment of combat, he spied a third man who had slipped onto the path. It was this man who challenged him as he separated Yuudai from his family. Still, with no hesitation, the Samurai fingered the Tantō behind his back. A moment of stillness before he would release the lethal dagger toward its target. 

But when the combatant seized the Samurai’s wife and child and shielded himself with their soft bodies, the Great Yuudai gasped. A tiny hint of a gasp that roared like the ocean in his ears. And in that infinitesimal moment when time stopped… in that slight pause when 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 Kaida crumble to the ground. Her eyes strained from the pain; her twisted mouth cried out for rescue. Tears welled in the Samurai’s eyes. He stood unmovable as he watched the man-in-black grab his infant boy… watched him pull his son by his leg, watched him yank his tiny body from his mother’s arms. 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. What was there to live for, his mind screamed. 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, had shattered into a million pieces.”

 

My Japanese vocabulary was rusty. It wasn’t easy keeping up with all the big words Ojiisan used, but I understood well enough. The sadness I felt for the Great Samurai burst through me in a pant of tears. My own heart felt crushed, 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 the story, then signaled to me to go to bed with a nudge. “Chīsana on’nanoko ni wa ō sugiru[4],” she said with a scolding sigh. She feared I would wake with nightmares.

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, right in the middle of the story. I pushed my zaisu in toward the low table, turned toward my bedroom but stopped after a few steps. I looked back at my grandfather, his head bowed and nodding in respect to Obaasan’s request. “Ojiisan,” I asked, “would you please finish the story. I’m not too little. I won’t cry. I promise.” 

My grandparents turned to me with eyes open and brows raised. Those few words were more than I had said since the day I arrived. And in perfect Japanese. It surprised them both. I stood still where I had landed, afraid if I moved back to my chair it would break the spell.  After a short pause and a nod from Obaasan, Ojiisan plunged forward toward the end of the tragic tale. 

 

“The man-in-black smirked like the devil and sauntered over to the defeated Samurai. He grabbed Yuudai’s topknot in his fist and forced the Samurai’s head upward. He forced him to look at his butchered wife and child. The sight of his family’s bloodied bodies would be the last moments of the hero’s life.

The man-in-black tortured the Samurai with ridicule and laughter. But Yuudai accepted his fate with honor. He straightened his spine, curled his toes underneath him, and prepared for his imminent death. The trees caught his eyes as they rattled against each other in the breeze. A cool breeze rippled over his sweat-soak skin, a comfort of this world. He closed his eyes on what was once a beautiful life and as he inhaled his last breath… a dagger whistled passed above his head in flight, pricking his ears. His eyes snapped open in the exact moment the knife lodged itself up to the hilt in the assailant’s neck. More perfectly targeted than ever anticipated. Blood spurted from the carotid; the wound deep and deadly.

Do you remember my relative Kunio? He had sworn his life to the Samurai. In love and duty, he followed Yuudai many strides behind, humbled to be in the Samurai’s presence. He often waited nearby for any instruction of service to which he could attend. His master was a graceful warrior. So shrewd in his art, that two men were already dead before Kunio could stir himself from his paralyzed fear. When the Samurai had tossed aside the Tantō in surrender, it landed near enough to Kunio’s feet. After considering the dagger and where it lay as a choice point in his own destiny, Kunio awakened to the battle.

The thud of the man-in-black’s body hit the ground and echoed throughout the country. It was an astonishing moment! Kunio had saved the Samurai’s life! But instead of the gratitude he expected, despair filled his master’s eyes. Kunio understood. He had interfered in the Samurai’s battle, interfered in his fate, interfered in his destiny. He foresaw his own death, which would come by the Samurai’s hand, for he was a doomed man. But he would die willing; his actions meant the Samurai lived and that was all that mattered. Kunio scrambled down to his knees, bowed into the cool mud, and waited for his inevitable death.

But the Samurai did not rise. He could not rise; his body and heart anchored him to ground, weighted heavy with grief. 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 then into winter. Even as rain and snow showered down upon him, the Samurai remained unmoved. His toes flared red in his sandals, curled under him in the hero pose he had taken for his death. Soon enough 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 further 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 in honor of their beloved Samurai. 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; he had never lain still in his life. Not even in sleep where he tossed and turned with worry. But he dared not move. Every muscle burned in anguish. Every breath rose with gasps as if the next one would not come. 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 than his love for Yuudai. That love so filled him with peace, he eased into a stillness only experienced in meditation by the holy men. In time, gratitude heated his near frozen body. Tears of relief slid down his face as he no longer felt pain, nor did his stomach rumble from hunger or thirst. He waited. And waited.

The great Samurai finally woke from his tortured mind. In one graceful movement he rose upward and stood tall and erect. The thickened crowd rumbled with joy, then hushed all at once. The man they knew as Yuudai no longer appeared present in the Samurai’s sandals. The man they saw shook with a maddened mind, his face flared red, his eyes darted with rage. 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 did not care that the face was young and smooth. He did not care if the man had a family or had sent prayers to heaven that morning. Yuudai seared the man’s visage into his whole being. Through his bared teeth, he swore. He swore he would search through every lifetime for this coward’s soul until he avenged his wife and child. And by claiming such a vile promise, Yuudai set a curse in motion that caused him a troublesome eternity.

The Samurai stood motionless over the dead man. For several long moments he prayed for the courage to retrieve, once again, his stolen sword. A Samurai believed his sword held his soul, and that each action in battle carved the path toward the fulfillment of his destiny. Once separated from his sword, his life-source, it equaled his own death. A coward defeated him in this lifetime; he feared forgiveness would be hard earned. If ever.

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 lower still and begged the gods to forgive his many sins. He prayed for a better incarnation in his next life. 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 and watched in amazement as Yuudai blessed Kunio with a heartfelt commendation of his courage. Kunio’s actions equaled what his clansman would have done, they would have also defended him in battle. In a sign of deep respect, he then renamed Kunio, Raiden, after the mythical Japanese god of thunder. The knife that had killed his assailant surprised even Yuudai. It had appeared and disappeared before him like lightning.

Yuudai then dropped to his knees in front of Raiden. And as if all at once, the entire crowd also knelt with mouths agape. Yuudai begged Raiden to pray for his family’s souls. For his beloved wife and innocent son, minutes old with no sin on his head for such an unjustified death. He begged Raiden to help him find forgiveness and to banish the seething hatred from his heart. But Yuudai 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. He cared not about the tears that streamed down his face. In a moment of clarity, he bequeathed Raiden his every penny with his gratitude. He gifted his devoted servant every possession and there were many. Yuudai proclaimed that his lands were Raiden’s. Including the servants that worked in the fields and the beasts that roamed them. And then in a ceremonial moment, he presented Raiden his sword. With utmost respect Raiden denied the gifts and begged the Samurai to keep them. For should he accept them, only one action remained. And as Raiden expected, Yuudai pushed the sword into his hands and turned away. He walked back to the dead man and stared again into the man’s eyes, “I will never forget you. I will find you,” he whispered; only Raiden heard. Yuudai then bent down and pulled the dagger from the man’s neck; blood gushed from the wound.

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. In truth he took the time to accept his cursed fate and asked for wisdom and guidance as he traveled into his next life. He hurled a prolonged howl of injustice to the heavens, so filled with agony, all that watched cried with him. 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 as 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. Many truths infused with many fictions often creates folklore. 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 incorporated. His clansmen feared not the apparition. They welcomed the fierce support from the Samurai’s ghost. In terrified surrender, the enemy laid their weapons down.

In the many years following his death, the townspeople saw visions of The Great Yuudai. In the forest and on the mountain paths. The sightings were considered auspicious blessings, so they   marked them as such in their historical records. There were hundreds of personal stories in those early days. No one understood why he appeared when he did. The best storytellers say that the Samurai continued his earthly walk to pay for his sins. Obliged to do good deeds until he burned off his cursed karma. And his deeds blessed many, indeed.

After the war, no danger, nor ill befell Raiden or his family. Which is our family, Michiko. And it has been over nine-hundred years. Already late in life, Raiden’s wife birthed seven healthy sons. They have all grown into powerful, compassionate men, and reared dozens of children. Those children have also had children. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue their lineage; 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 too, 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. It still lives in Tokyo, encased in glass for all the world to admire. The Tantō, however… the very same dagger that lays on the kitchen table has a different ending. Each first-born son received the dagger on their tenth birthday, passed down from generation to generation. On my tenth birthday, my father’s father gifted the dagger to me. They did not keep the knife from their son, he held it safe until his life was cut short in the war. But that story is for another time.

As a careless young boy, I did not understand the gift in my hands. Of course, I swore to my grandparents to honor the legend. But I tossed the knife into a chest of childhood playthings and forgot about it. Over two decades later, I married your Obaasan. On the day 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 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 weapon 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 in that rudimentary experiment. But I, neither wealthy nor strong, felt so unlike the long line of warriors in Raiden’s history. I admired the ancient legend but questioned the tale’s validity. My good fortune felt overlooked.

I made a mess of our few belongings and received a scolding from Obaasan. She 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. Without thinking, I 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 as I hiked out into the pine grove.

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 plucked it from the wooden sheath and instantly knew its weight and line. Even 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 overhead… and the dagger flew out of my hands. It landed in the heart of a rabid wolf, stopping the savage attack that would have 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. Two or three meters away, resting on one knee near the dead wolf. Hundreds of years had passed since there were recordings of visions of the Samurai. 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. I watched him release the wolf’s soul to the heavens with love. When he stood, immense in his stature, eight or nine feet tall, I noticed he wore full battle regalia. But without his weapons as his dagger stuck out from the wolf’s heart. Yuudai looked at me with tear-filled eyes, then bowed his whole body toward me. When he stood upright again, he 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. Yuudai was there and he gifted me the blessing of my life. I do not know why. I may never 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 grant his soul release from his karmic debt and reunite him with his great love. In all my years, and it has been almost forty more since that day, I never saw Yuudai again. I can only hope the gods heard my prayers.”

 

Only our quickened breath filled the quiet kitchen. No one spoke for a long time; our hearts lost in the tragic tale. When I first heard the story, and that second time too, as I nursed my four bloody fingers in our small yellow kitchen, I also vowed to pray for the Samurai. I bowed my head in prayer that very moment.

And again, on that hot March day three years later, as Ojiisan and I floated in a rowboat in our demolished village. I whittled away the wood from around the lead of the pencil with the sacred Tantō dancing in my hands. I bowed my head and asked Yuudai for his guidance. How could I take on this responsibility at twelve-years-old? I prayed for his help in my task; we would not survive this alone I feared.

I carved the pencil with great focus and a short while later I 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 – is a Japanese chair with no legs but a normal chair back.[1] They are often found in traditional rooms with tatami mats, and are often used for relaxing under heated kotatsu tables.

[4] Chīsana on’nanoko ni wa ō sugiru – “It is too much for a little girl.”