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Jul/Aug 2010 Fiction

The Black Feathers Road

by John Givens

Artwork by Costel Iarca


The boy came ambling across the autumn moorlands, clouds of insects rising up around him in the slanting orange light of the late afternoon sun. His two swords were shoved together through his sash in such a manner that the fist-protector of each would probably impede access to the other; and on his head was the kind of iron helmet no fighter would employ unless facing imminent battle, a riveted old brain-roaster that resembled the petrified carapace of a tortoise. The chin cords of this helmet dangled disreputably, the linked metal plates on the neck guards had collected dust and debris, and the rusty stub of a snapped-off flange on the frontal plate indicated where some form of heraldic device had once been mounted.

The rogue samurai Hasegawa Torakage watched the young rider's approach from the narrow veranda-corridor of a roadside inn. Travel gear piled behind his saddle was tied on haphazardly and held in place by rice-straw ropes that were wound around haphazardly, as if his provisioning had been organized by apes; and a long wooden pannier hung down on one side, unbalancing the load and causing his horse to move with an oblique and staggering gait.

That's some bogey, said the innkeeper.

Yes, it is.

The gaudy young warrior rode past the inn without so much as a glance then turned up onto the road north.

Hasegawa ordered another flask of the local rice wine and a dish of dried squid tentacles to go with it.

You never did say how far you're going, said the innkeeper.

Just north.

You can go north pretty far.

Yes, you can.

So I guess you're fond of walking, said the innkeeper; and Hasegawa agreed that he did seem to have developed a taste for it.

Sight seeing...

Things as they are... or as they appear to be.

The road north soon became little more than a dyke-path separating paddy fields; and Hasegawa strode through the warm, dry, golden-yellow sea of rice shimmering in the autumn sunlight, finding things he'd remembered and things he'd forgotten.

Villagers greeted him with the wary deference of border-dwellers who have learned that any novelty was unlikely to be beneficial. He spoke to children, spoke to grannies with babies tied on their backs, smiled at young women who turned away at the sight of him and at those who didn't. He greeted boys as if they were almost men, and addressed men with the respect that others often denied them.

The local headman sat up with Hasegawa in the evening and shared what he had. He said their rice was paid to the Tokugawa Shogunate as taxes; and when their millet and vegetables were gone, they survived on wild tubers and dried radish tops and bean leaves, things that people in the cities fed their animals as fodder. He said it had always been like that up there and always would be.

Hasegawa shared the headman's poor breakfast the following dawn and contributed some of his own provisions to it. He left a portion of his tea supply with him, and he also tucked a copper coin surreptitiously under a ceramic pot.

The headman walked with him to the top of the valley. The road leading into the mountains was overgrown with autumn grasses, and he pointed out the places where an unwary traveler might go astray. The frame of an old sluice gate there was smothered with kudzu vine, and the headman ripped it away roughly, as if responding to a personal affront.

The first Dewa village is less than a day's walk. They're bumpkins there. But devious.

Probably they say the same thing about you.

The headman acknowledged that that might indeed be the case.

 

The entire village had assembled on the riverbank to watch as an arsonist was blindfolded, then led down into the dry riverbed. Behind him came Jirobei the Cutter, a huge man with a swollen belly hanging out like an immense pink thunder drum. He was wearing only his loin cloth, and Hasegawa knew that the nakedness of his massive shoulders and buttocks and thighs would seem like an affront to the shogunate officials who were gathered along the edge of the riverbank.

I will show you a rare occurrence, Jirobei said.

We know what you can do, said the senior Tokugawa man. Get on with it.

The Dewa had to accept the presence of shogunate samurai in their villages although they showed them little respect, and their disdain made the shogun's agents resentful and surly.

You don't know what I can do, said the cutter.

The arsonist waited, shivering in fear, his head tilted off to one side like someone listening for faint sounds coming from afar. He had burned down the house of the local moneylender, intending to destroy both the account books and the man; and in a village of flimsy wooden structures with paper doors and straw floor mats, there could be only one punishment for such a crime.

The arsonist said he needed a moment to compose himself. But Jirobei was stripping the robe off his shoulders, as if in preparation for the bedding of a new bride, pushing his sash down, too, until the wad of garments hung low on his hips and his waist was exposed.

Don't move.

But I'm not ready...

Don't move.

Jirobei took a position just behind him. He had a stiff-blade chopper, heavier than most, with an oversized hilt further thickened by a layer of horsehide that was held in place by windings of copper wire, the coils of which crisscrossed over each other forming diamond-shaped lozenges that improved the gripping surface and added an aesthetic component.

The arsonist declared in a quavering voice that he believed more might be learned from his case, a cautionary lesson that could help others avoid the mistakes he himself had made. Even in Dewa, society was changing, and new mores required new methods. He said some kind of confession might be produced by him, the details of his malfeasance captured in vivid language authentic with remorse. He said that in his opinion the credibility of such a document would more than compensate for the slight delay that composing it would require...

But Jirobei the Cutter took a half-step back and dug in with that foot. He bent his knees slightly and waggled his raised chopper as a timing mechanism, then drove forward, pushing off his plant leg and rotating his hips as he hit through, swinging across low and hard and flat, and with both arms fully extended at the point of impact so that the arsonist flipped apart in an explosion of entrails that leapt out into the crisp autumn air like a double handful of flung eels.

Jirobei stood between the two halves of the dying body, the spray of fresh offal steaming on the dry sand of the riverbed.

That's a thing it is said cannot be done to a standing man. But as you have seen, I can do it.

The shogun's constable stared at the sundered corpse, his face pinched shut with disgust. What do you want?

The arsonist's loin cloth had come apart with his destruction, and Jirobei plucked up one end of it then wiped clean his blade. To assist those who enforce the laws of the shogunate.

The shogun's constable turned to his junior officers; but Hasegawa guessed that it was their fear of this huge Dewa man that had precipitated the difficulty, their sense that he was impinging upon them and blighting their prospects. That's impossible, said the constable.

A bloody gob of matter adhered to one of Jirobei's sandals; he flicked it off.

Don't ask for what can never be given!

The shogun's constable glared at those who were aligned with him, men who had become bureaucrats, fashion-lovers, cushion-choosers, samurai gone soft on the generosity of the shogunate. Don't ask to be included, he said. Ask for something else.

There is nothing else. I need permission to investigate crimes and demand explanations. Jirobei studied the row of constabulary officers looking back at him from the riverbank. He said he also needed permission to hurt those who refused to cooperate. Hurt artisans and tradesmen and farmers. Hurt samurai.

Not samurai.

I can't serve you if I'm not allowed to initiate procedures. The huge man smiled to himself as he said it, savoring the sound of each word, the lovely feel of it on his lips.

Your service is not required.

The arsonist's blood flow had reached Jirobei's feet and pooled in the dry sand there.

And why do you even care about the shogunate?

He didn't care about it. He cared about orderliness.

There was no reason for him to pursue such matters.

There's no reason for anything, Jirobei said. Other than in the doing of it.

 

By midday, he had come into a primeval cedar forest, the ancient trees towering above him. Hasegawa thought he heard the murmuring of flying geese but also thought it might just have been the wind in the tops of the cedars. He went from shade to sunlight to shade again, and he recognized the change of the season in his preference for the sun.

An orange bird-perch gate marked a flight of stone stairs that climbed straight uphill to a cloud-road shrine somewhere in the forest high above. Pilgrims dressed in white were resting there, vows written in bold characters down the fronts of their robes. Hasegawa exchanged greetings with them and comments on the weather and the topography and the pleasures of mountain rambling in high autumn but didn't linger, for they would be a slow-moving company prone to breaking out into prayer chants at the slightest provocation.

Hasegawa reached the next village just before sunset. The foolish boy-warrior was sprawled like a proprietor on a stack of rice-straw sacks local farmers had prepared for the harvest. You want it? His horse stood with its rear hoof held off at an odd angle, the fetlock swollen and bloody. Save me the bother of killing the stupid thing.

You kill it you'll be carrying your gear.

I guess I'll find a replacement first.

You see many horses around here?

The boy shifted his sword handles forward suggestively. I guess I only need one.

Hasegawa looked at him then turned away and continued through the village and back onto the Black Feathers Road. He walked then rested then walked some more, and he got as far as the site of a Dewa outpost that had been destroyed by the Tokugawa Shogunate. On the grassy ridge above it, an immense ginkgo tree stood blazing against the bright clarity of the autumn evening sky in an up-flooding geyser of sulphur-yellow flames.

The defenders had been given an opportunity to record their feelings, and these messages and poems and admonitions for their heirs had been attached to their head caskets for the trip back to Edo where the Shogun himself had agreed to participate in a viewing. Nothing was left of the wooden buildings and palisades. Only a rectangular section of their granite foundation blocks remained, like an abandoned jetty washed by a sea of autumn grasses.

Hasegawa built a small comfort-fire on the leeward side of the foundation wall. Soot from his smoke blackened that already there; and he sat facing the ginkgo tree pouring itself up into the fading twilight, recalling phrases from old poems and ideas that he thought were his own but also thought might just be things he remembered.

The Dewa fighters that died here had been men like himself, men who would have sought consolation in what they were writing even as they were waiting to be called out for the commencement of slaughter procedures. What a thing it would be to compose the sentence or poem that you knew would be your last. How could you configure it? How could you accept that what you'd made didn't need revision or reworking, that it was sufficient as it was in itself? Wouldn't they have looked up at that splendid tree roaring against the sky and said exactly what it was, and in so doing, be exactly what they should be at that last instant of life?

Hasegawa poked up his fire with a greenwood stick, knocking out bundles of swirling orange sparks. But what if there was a way of saying it better, and even as you were on the rim of your one and only death, you didn't try to find it?

He tossed a knotted cedar root onto his fire and a centipede ran out of it. The insect made for the shadows formed by the folds of his robe, and Hasegawa guided it away with his stick. It tried to loop back around. He shoved it farther out then flicked it over the massive granite foundation block. He levered the gnarly root up off the fire; but there didn't seem to be any others, and he let it back down.

Anything he wrote would be deformed by his understanding that even the simplest expression could be improved; and the evening's darkness absorbed the splendid tree and the sea of autumn grass on the hillside, leaving him no more able to decline hope than he was to accept this inability.

Shit. I thought you were a bandit. The gaudy boy warrior came up off the road, his helmet worn so low over his eyes that he had to tilt his head back to see. I was about to get out my old throat-cutter.

He was on foot now and leading his horse, the gear still piled on it ineptly, with rice-straw ropes wound around and around in a comedy of incapability. He declared that he was known everywhere as Taro, the Hell-kite of Edo, and that all who met him soon realized he was a stone-cold killer with an icy heart and a fondness for the beauty of war.

Of course I guess we're both up here for the same reason, the boy said, hovering uncertainly at the edge of the camp site in deference to Hasegawa's right of priority.

I guess I don't know what that is.

The Hell-kite smirked, as if undergoing some obscure hazing ritual. Killing bandits.

Hasegawa said nothing.

Of course I haven't had much luck killing any yet. But I'm getting closer. He stood waiting so Hasegawa invited him to bivouac there and share his meagre rations. Unless you prefer to be on your own.

Usually I do, said the Hell-kite of Edo. It makes me more deadly.

The lone wolf.

The lone wolf all alone on its own and that strikes like sudden lightning!

All right.

But since you've already got a fire going...

After they had finished their meal, the Hell-kite of Edo retrieved his elongated pannier. The box was hinged along one side and held closed by a pair of brass hook-and-eye latches on the other. Words written in the language of butter eaters decorated the lid of this foreign box, and inside was a new-design harquebus, a weapon only just arrived in their country and one said to possess a deadly accuracy. The gun had a long barrel with a single-leg shooting support that fitted into a brass socket midway down the length of it. The ramrod rode in a tube on the wooden stock under the barrel, with extra ramrods inside the lid of the box. The Hell-kite said there was no object anywhere in the world that he preferred to this wonderful new gun. A row of sealed canisters contained black powder, and a pair of small metal flasks held the fine-grain priming powder. There was a leather case with adjustable straps for carrying lead balls, and a jute sack filled with little squares of silk that were used to hold the loaded ball in place. The Hell-kite told him he would not trade his gun for a golden Buddha statue big as a man. The weapon was already fitted with its punk cord, and extra cords were coiled up and tucked inside the carrying box along with the tools needed for proper maintenance.

I can hit anything with it I can see, said the Hell-kite. He lifted the matchlock out of its box and cradled it on his lap. The lead ball he showed him was the size of a sparrow's egg. You can imagine the damage that does.

Hasegawa said nothing. But he could imagine it.

The Hell-kite demonstrated how a brass cover closed down over the touch hole so the priming powder wouldn't spill out. I am particularly fond of the art of the head-shot. The punk cord was slotted into a serpentine-lever that cocked back against a spring and was held there by the toggle bar of the trigger release mechanism. He's standing there in the folly of his arrogance. Then, bam! Lightning strikes! And his brains are splattered all over the rocks and trees!

All right.

Or he's on his knees weeping and pleading for his life but you just—

I said all right. Put it back in its box. And don't show me again.

 

So how many men have you killed?

Hasegawa glanced back at the grinning boy trudging along behind him but said nothing.

More than a hundred?

They were keeping to a ridge, seeking terrain that would be easier for the injured horse to manage.

More than fifty then?

Hasegawa said nothing.

I haven't actually killed anybody myself yet. At least I don't think I have.

You'd know.

Not with my big banger you don't!

Hasegawa looked back at him again.

I needed to get a feel for it. You know how you need to get a feel for a thing like that? It's all very well shooting at trees. Or dogs. Except of course for how they run around so you have to tie them to something so if you miss the first time you can keep trying. But that's not the same as shooting at a man. And you know, you want to know you can trust your weapon in battle. So when I got into the hills, there was this gang of ruffians camped on the far side of this deep gorge. Troublemakers of the worst sort probably. So I worked my way around until I found a good spot just opposite and let it off on them. What a noise! Echoes in all directions!

And you hit someone?

Well, I don't know. On account of how I had to duck down so they couldn't see where the shot came from.

They stayed in the forest throughout the middle part of the day, taking care to avoid inclines. The shogunate constabulary had set up an outpost farther along on the road so whenever they reached an opening in the trees they would search for the wisp of smoke from the day-fire there and estimate their position by it.

You know probably we could have just stayed on the road and gone straight through.

Not with that gun.

That's why it's in its box. So you don't know what it is.

What else would be in a box like that?

They came to an exposed slope of loose scree that descended to a stream far below. The sky was a hard flat blue with low clouds crowding the horizon, and the mountains and forests stretched out beyond them in all directions, dark green on lighter green paling to gray. A sea eagle hung high in the autumn sky, adjusting itself with casual ease as it slid across great lambent sheets of empty air.

The Hell-kite stood watching it with him. What you do is you wait until it lands on its nest then shoot straight up through it.

They went down along the edge of the forest for the better footing that might be found there, and traversed back and forth until they reached the bottom. Summer flooding had eroded the stream banks, and there was no good way to cross. Hasegawa insisted on unloading the horse. They carried the gear across then led the horse down through the raw gully, gauging the angle of the slope; but the loose gravel broke up beneath him, and the panicky horse crashed into the stream and fell sideways then staggered upright. Hasegawa got him on solid ground and calmed him, and the Hell-kite began piling the gear on again. Hasegawa waited until he was finished then made him take it apart and do it right.

They cut straight across until they reached the road north again, well beyond the shogunate outpost.

We should've stayed on this road the whole time. And if anybody said anything about my gun, we'd have just cut him down.

I thought your intention was to kill bandits.

I won't let anybody stop me.

Not even the Tokugawa?

The Hell-kite brushed the dust off his helmet and put it on, the formality of road travel requiring such a display. I guess they piss the same color we do.

The neck guards attached around the bottom rim of his head-bucket bothered him, and the Hell-kite tried to angle the crown of it forward so the hanging iron strips wouldn't chafe his shoulders. You can take them off, Hasegawa said, they unhook. But the Hell-kite thought the neck guards gave him a fierce appearance, and that was an advantage he would not willingly forgo.

They bivouacked at the top end of an alpine meadow and ate their meagre rations beside a scrappy bonfire, the evening wind bending the dry grass around them and soughing in the tops of the cedars.

The Hell-kite wanted to talk about technique. He said he had a sense of how to fight with a long sword but wasn't sure if his style looked right. What he needed to know was the correct method for delivering a killing blow. He showed him what he meant, carving great sloppy arcs in the air with his naked blade and delighted by the display until Hasegawa told him he looked like a drunken farmer swinging a grain-flail.

So what should I do then? said the Hell-kite. Give me a few tips.

Hasegawa said nothing.

They always say how there's a true way but never say what it is! They always say that the superior man acts without effort but not how he does it. How are you supposed to know?

Hasegawa fed sticks into the fire, watching the flames as they jerked and flared. It's not chopping. It's slicing. And it's not hitting hard, it's drawing the cutting edge through smoothly. He adjusted the architecture of his fire, configuring loosely piled ricks that would burn better. And it's not just how quick you are, it's where you start your stroke from. And not the angle you use, but what your opponent thinks you're going to use. And where he is when he recognizes his error.

But so then how do you know how to do all that?

You don't need to. No one does.

But what if I'm attacked? I can get off one shot with my big banger, but it takes time to reload. So I need to know how to fight with a long sword and a short sword. And a slash knife.

Hasegawa poked the fire, sending a spray of orange sparks up into the autumn evening. Don't get attacked, he said.

The Hell-kite told him he knew he made mistakes. But he'd never had any help. How could he follow the true way of the warrior if nobody guided him? He said he'd rather leave his bones on a hillside than spend his life squatting in some miserable hovel gluing tufts of bristles onto bamboo handles. That's no life! You think that's a life? Year after year after year of it. Assembling tray stands and fitting the parts together. Your shoulders hunched and your fingers so crooked you can hardly use them! Twisting flax into rope. Weaving rice-straw baskets. Your eyesight failing. Your whole life just that one thing and then you die? Is that a life for a man? He said he'd rather be cut down with a sword in his hand and the sounds of battle in his ears. The shouts of attackers! The roar of musket fire! The howls of the wounded! The stench of blood and the shared beauty of comradeship as you launch a massed charge, every man willing to die for the nobility of the attempt.

What attempt?

What do you mean what attempt?

Attempting what?

Anything! he cried. The goal of it hardly mattered. It was the willingness to die for something worth dying for that the Hell-kite craved. He couldn't find words strong enough. Just the beauty of it, he said.

Of men dying...

Of men dying, yes! The beauty of the pathos of their deaths.

You've never seen it.

Why do you think I'm up here? Stuck in these stupid mountains? There's no chance for a real war anymore. Either you join up with bandits or you go fight them.

Hasegawa watched the tossing fire, the incandescence of it blooming and flaring in the raw mountain wind, the flames ripped apart at the instant of their inception. So all you want is to kill somebody.

The Hell-kite sat stubbornly beside him. You aren't listening to me. I want to do it properly.

Hasegawa found a place to spread his quilts and laid them out with his carry-sack for a pillow. He walked back into the bushes to piss then returned to the edge of the firelight. You can want what you want. But you won't get it from me.

 

They parted the next day. There wasn't much said. The Hell-kite sat by the morning fire with an extra robe draped over his head.

Hasegawa picked up his gear. You know you're going to have to be careful with that horse.

The Hell-kite looked up at him sullenly. His horse was his property and of no concern to another man. The stupid thing would just have to get used to its load.

The sky was low and heavy with clouds. Hasegawa followed a back road that would lead over the central massif and directly into the three holy mountains of Dewa. The wind felt colder as he went higher, and the road was overgrown with brush in places and blocked with trees that had fallen, some with long black burn-scars ripped down through their hearts and some rotted-out at the roots and toppled from the weight of their years. He climbed steadily. Rime whitened the shadows of the rocks and tree boles, and his breath plumed out whitely before him. It could snow, it was cold enough.

Hasegawa emerged into a high-pass of bare rock and scrub pine. The morning's clouds rode in tight piles on the horizon, releasing an empty sky of a blueness of an intensity that seemed beyond praise. He worked his way up around granite outcroppings darkened in places where streams of snow-melt flowed in spring, the broad gray sheets of rock scoured by the wind as if in preparation for an encounter with the sky. He stopped to rest, settling into a protected pocket, the granite there crumbled into a dressing of coarse sand that he scraped up then let it trickle through his fingers, flakes of mica glinting like tiny black blades in the windy sunlight.

Wasn't everything provided? Wasn't the only requirement that you acknowledge it?

Lichens encrusted the rock, fitting themselves to its welts and knobs and fissures, mustard yellow or nacreous gray or the grainy brown of raw burdock, a beauty equivalent in every way to that of cherry blossoms or maple leaves, only smaller, drier, less insistent...

Except they weren't like blossoms, they weren't like anything.

Why did the facts of the world seem so unfinished to him?

Why was he still draping the world with words? Still seeing it through them?

Why even when he tried to get past this yearning to describe what he saw did he find himself trying to describe the impossibility of description?

A lichen on a rock in the mountains. Why was it as it is so beyond him?

Hasegawa walked until twilight then set his bivouac in a protected gorge shielded from the wind. A single rice ball wrapped in dried laver was all that remained of his rations, and he tried to feel satisfied but wanted another. He would have no food tomorrow and probably none the next day.

It began snowing at twilight, soft and silent; and he pulled his gear back under a low juniper then cut extra branches and inserted them into the canopy of boughs above him. He sat beside an underfed fire draped in every garment and quilt he possessed, the night's cold sinking into him; and he awoke to white ash where his fire had been, to the whiteness of snow covering the high peaks, and a cold so crushing that it drove him numbed and stumbling out onto a frost-covered rock plain where he marched in self-configured circles, his teeth chattering, flapping his arms, trying to get himself warm enough to be able to start another fire.

The bleak sun rose into the milky cold of the sky and the wind rose with it, blowing snow dust off stone peaks in great sweeping bursts of silver that glittered then faded against the whiteness of the dawn. He went scrambling for more wood, the bitter cold like shafts of ice that drove him staggering back with what he had scavenged. The fire he managed to construct was a poor affair, the wood too green to burn well; and he soon abandoned it, packing up his gear with hands crimped by the cold and lurching back out onto the road.

The day warmed as Hasegawa walked but he was never warm. His feet felt like things wrapped in ice quilts. By the hour of the ram, he had reached an open slope. The snowy peaks of the three holy mountains of Dewa shone in the distance, The Sky Baths, Moon Peak, and beyond them Black Feathers itself. They looked very far away, and he wished he had someone to tell that to in order to hear it said back that only perseverance was required.

He crossed down into a high alpine meadow, the dead grass lying flattened and matted on the frozen earth. Runoff had pooled in low places, the black water edged with a silver filigree of rime; and he was in amidst them when he realized that what he was seeing were human bones scattered across the empty ground, pelvises and femurs and rib cages arrayed like barbaric musical instruments stripped clean by blown grit and bleached white over the turning of the years, as if the cleansing of death's bounty were the true work of the world's seasons.

There were primitive sword blades emerging from the frozen mud, stubby chunks of steel so eaten with rust that they looked like plant fronds or flattened dance wands. He found the remains of ancient spears, the wooden shafts of which had long since rotted away leaving behind lumps of iron with empty shaft-sockets. Shards of corroded armor sometimes still cupped the bones of its wearer, and scraps of what had been cloth broke apart in his fingers and blew away as dust. He found a spray of arrowheads rusted together into a single clump configured by the shape of the arrow canister while the bamboo shafts, the hawks-feather fletchings, the quiver and asymmetrical bow had all long since been absorbed within the sun and the wind and the rain, as had been the man himself, whose arrows had not been shot.

A slab of granite held the skulls of the slain. They were piled up neatly in a cairn, their empty eye sockets all facing north towards the holy mountains, as if the orderliness of the arrangement justified the suitability of its occurrence. As if that was all their killers knew, all that could be known, and with nothing else to say and nothing to hear said.

 

The Hell-kite of Edo attached the bullet pouch and priming-power flask to his sash then hooked on a pair of black powder canisters. He stuffed a handful of charge-patches in his sleeve pouch the way he'd once seen a shogunate gunner do then crept down closer to the enemy lines. He found a good rock. It would be his primary assault position. He blew on the punk cord then eased the serpentine on his harquebus forward to half-cock.

The bandit was just off the road, sitting exposed in an open dell. He had both arms wrapped around his belly and his feet stuck straight out before him like a little child. A back frame lay abandoned on the roadway, piled high with bundles of dried tobacco leaves, some of which had spilled off, perhaps as a decoy.

Like any successful military tactician, the Hell-kite of Edo put his trust in the element of surprise; and the bandit disappeared in the crashing roar of the discharge, the sound of it echoing and re-echoing in the hills.

The Hell-kite ducked down behind the rock cover. His enemies could have heard that shot and known it meant their lines were under attack and come swarming down onto the battlefield to avenge their fallen comrade.

The Hell-kite felt aggrieved by the injustice of the fact that he always had to do everything by himself. But when he finally dared to look up again, he saw the bandit lying on his back with a bloody chunk of meat hanging off his shoulder and his legs kicking and twisting in a novel manner. He thought he would have time to get off another shot before reinforcements launched a counterattack.

The Hell-kite jerked open his bullet pouch and picked out a lead ball, the sounds of battle thudding in his ears, horses charging and men shouting their war cries as the famous bandit-queller seated the ball in a patch of silk cloth and fitted it in the muzzle then drew the ramrod and drove it down smartly into the firing breech, pleased with his skill and his calmness and his panache.

Except he had forgotten to put in the powder charge.

He squatted back down behind the rocky outcrop. The world mocked him and hated him and never helped him.

He had a tool to force loose a blockage in the gun breech by inserting a steel pin through the touch hole, but his hands were shaking and he was unable to manipulate the stupid thing properly. He hacked at it and picked at it then gave up and turned the harquebus upside down, banging the muzzle on the hard surface of granite, battering it harder and harder until the stupid ball was jarred loose and rolled out onto the dirt.

The bandit had come upright on his knees. His shattered arm hung uselessly, but he had a sword in his good hand with a blade the color and shape of a dried wisteria pod.

The Hell-kite pulled the stopper out of his black powder canister and dropped it. He poured in a charge then looked around for the stopper but couldn't find it. Finally he tucked the still-open canister in a rock-cleft where it wouldn't spill. He picked up the bullet and wiped it off then fitted it on a fresh patch and drove it home. The missing stopper had been under his foot. He snatched it up then stood holding the charged gun in one hand, the stopper in the other, staring down at the black power canister, unsure which to put down and which to pick up, his panic growing so that he finally tossed away the stopper and primed his gun, a loose spray of fine-grain powder spilling down his arm.

The bandit had managed to get to his feet. He spotted the Hell-kite and started up towards his battlements, his ruined arm swinging at his side.

The blast tore across the Hell-kite; and he flung himself away from it screeching, rubbing his burned arm, trying to slap away the pain.

But his enemy was on his back again. He lay there writhing like a gaffed eel, the lower portion of his face shot away.

The Hell-kite watched as the bandit rolled over onto his belly. He started dragging himself towards a defensive sanctuary that was cleverly disguised as a grove of green alders, his bad arm flopping loosely behind him and a flap of bloody flesh folded off from where his cheek had been, the smashed jaw canting outwards from the side of his head like a poorly-fit handle.

He blew on the punk cord until the tip glowed then locked the serpentine-lever back at the fully-cocked safety position. He poured in a charge of black powder. He fitted a lead ball on its patch and drove it home with panache. He primed the pan at the touch hole then closed the pan-cover, humming a wavering little farrago of war ballads under his breath as he crept forward from his primary assault position. He shortened the serpentine to half-cock then rested the long barrel of his harquebus against the flanks of a rock. His next bullet tore a furrow across the bandit's buttocks, jerking him around so that he presented his ruined face back towards his assailant, his cheek ripped open, the edge of raw bone from his jaw hung with a wobbly snarl of bloody meat.

The Hell-kite retreated a short distance and reloaded again calmly and carefully, then returned to the battlefield with skill and resolve and tactical cunning. And panache. He confirmed that his enemy had not regained sufficient mobility to regroup his forces. He went closer. He found a good place to sit and shot him again, blowing a bright splash of blood out of his neck.

The bandit rolled over and lay on his back, bleeding into the dust from all parts of him.

With the tide of battle turned in his favor, the Hell-kite of Edo decided to confront his enemy in hand-to-hand combat. He seized him by one foot and dragged him more out into the open, twisting him over onto his belly in the process.

The bandit probably couldn't retrieve his sword; but the Hell-kite was cautious by nature, and he kicked it farther away then drew his own long sword—revered symbol of the warrior's soul—and darted forward, slashing down hard as he did so and employing what he understood to be the deadly oblique-style technique of a skilled neck-cutter.

But he'd swung too soon, his aim was poor, his balance all wrong, and his sword tip only took off part of an ear as it crashed into the side of the already mutilated jaw, ripping it apart in a spray of blood slobber and bone rubble and broken teeth.

The Hell-kite paused and gathered himself. He was too excited. This was his opportunity to become what he wished to be, and he wanted to remember it. But he also had to hurry before the stupid bandit bled to death.

He moved around to where he would have a better angle. He swung a mighty swing, hitting his enemy too high again, and slamming his mutilated face into the dirt.

The bandit lifted his head and looked up at him, the newest gash bleeding badly, blood leaking out of his broken-open mouth, bits of bone and teeth jammed up into odd quadrants of what was left of his face so that the Hell-kite panicked and hit him again in fury and disappointment and despair at the unfairness of things, this blow too glancing off the bandit's skull; and he stood over him hacking downwards with blow after blow, cracking into his neck with some strokes and ricocheting off his skull with others, splashing up gouts of blood and bits of meat and teeth and bone and finally managing to chop the head free so that he could kick it away in triumph.

He stood over him panting, the scourge of bandits, the implacable restorer of justice and stern provider of retribution for all the suffering inflicted on all the ... sufferers.

The Hell-kite pulled off the dead man's robe and spread it on the ground then rolled the head onto it with his foot and tied up the sleeves to form a carry-sack. It was a poor thing, he knew, with most of the features hacked away. But there would be a time when he would look back over a distinguished career of saving towns and villages from the depredations of bandits, and remember this first act of heroism and smile ruefully and nod modestly and forgive himself for its awkwardness and graciously accept the praise of those who owed him so much and to whom he had become something of a legend and a wonder and a marvel.

He felt a sudden urge to urinate and thought he might do it on the corpse of his opponent but was also a little frightened of that idea and so pissed instead on the bandit's hidden fortress, the yellow of his urine bubbling amidst the green of the alder boughs.

There were no villagers nearby to appreciate the service he had done for them so the Hell-kite returned to his pre-battle camp.

He got back to find his horse lying on its side. When it spotted him, the horse began struggling to get up. But its damaged leg would no longer support it, and it toppled over each time and screamed in a sound that the Hell-kite wouldn't have thought could be made by a horse.

He had left it tied to a tree in a manner he thought was probably about right and now this. Rage filled him. He was always on his own and had to do everything himself with no help from anybody ever. The Hell-kite darted in and stabbed the stupid thing in the belly, barely avoiding its flailing legs. He stabbed it again then jumped back and watched as it began dying.

He dragged his gear around to a low, marshy dell and hid it in a grove of willows there. Warriors lived off the land, and he took his small sword—his long sword, the warrior's soul, was too precious for such menial tasks—and started sawing at the horse's haunch. It was harder to cut than he would have thought. The edges of his blades might have suffered from neglect. But nobody ever showed him how to care for them—who was there to instruct him?—and he began jabbing at the tough hide, slashing and hacking in rage and frustration until he had managed to hack out a few strips of bloody flesh.

He built a fire pit with rocks then started his evening fire. He regretted not having a more martial battle-camp, with watch fires blazing on the horizon, and war banners mounted on tall poles. He wished he had an enclosure with camp stools and a rack for displaying the heads of slain warriors. He would have liked to sit up under the full moon after the others had retired and gaze on the heads of the men he had overcome in battle and speculate on the sadness of the nature of things. Or perhaps just the sliver of a three-day moon in a clear sky? Or, no, the full-moon but wreathed in mist. And the cries of fearful prisoners pleading to be spared. And maybe their wives and daughters on their knees begging for mercy. And the melancholy note of a single flute mournfully tootling of the sadness of things. So then not the cries of captives but just a row of severed heads in the moonlight. But still maybe a few daughters, young ones with long lustrous hair. And also only wearing their under-skirts. And how at first they're afraid of him but then when he's in his quilts they all creep in too. Or maybe just one does. But then on the next night a different one.

When the fire seemed about right the Hell-kite washed the horse meat in the stream then skewered it on peeled willow sticks. He raked apart the fire to expose a bed of glowing coals then positioned the strips of stringy meat between two upright stones. He went off to collect more firewood before full dark, and came back to find that the skewers had burned through in the center before the meat was hardly more than singed and his meal had dropped onto the fire, smothering the flames so that he had to pluck out the raw chunks of horse meat and take them all the way down to the stream to rinse again and then come all the way back and get his stupid fire blazing again, almost keening in frustration.

He sat holding the raw meat as he waited for his fire to grow back then banked the burning branches under the tallest upright wedge of granite and draped the stringy bits of muscle down over the front of it. The bottoms of each strip charred while the tops remained raw, but by reversing them and moving them around this way and that, he managed to burn the flesh sufficiently to be able to choke it down. War drums wouldn't have helped.

That night the Hell-kite of Edo awoke with a searing pain in his belly, and he staggered up out of his quilts on his hands and knees and vomited in great heaving gasps. His mouth and throat burned with the foul discharge, and he blundered stumbling down to the stream and fell to his knees at the edge of it. He drank then started back up towards his quilts, and an abrupt spasm in his bowels flooded open in an uncontrollable rupture so that he barely squatted in time, jerking his robes up out of the way as he emptied himself, the stench of it awful, the foulness splattering his heels and ankles in yet another violation of his dignity and panache.

 

The following day, exhausted, starving, his belly knotted, his mouth tasting of bile, the Hell-kite of Edo set out on the road north. He wrapped his harquebus in a light quilt to disguise the violation of its possession. He hid the rest of his gear but took the bandit's head, bundled up in its filthy robe. The head bounced against his leg as he walked, but he couldn't devise any better way of managing things. Thus it always was with him. You do everything right, stay true to your beliefs; but your stupid karma never relents, never ceases in its need to humiliate you so that after every downhill path comes the wretched ill-luck of a rising slope.

The Hell-kite found what he thought might be blackberries and gobbled some only to retch immediately, his throat burning as he hacked up a thin, watery bile. He had of course forgotten to bring his water gourd and so was required to drink from the creeks he passed, and that water probably wasn't clean, probably animals shit in it, and so he would almost certainly get sick again and that wasn't his fault either. He trudged along looking at nothing; and he stopped occasionally when it all got to be too much and sat in pockets of sunlight and stared up at the empty blue sky and didn't see it either.

By the hour of the ram, the Hell-kite of Edo had reached a narrow valley foaming with pampas grass, the silver filaments glowing in the late autumn sunlight. An outcropping of rock bordered the path. He flopped down to rest. His eyes closed in the warmth of the autumn sun, and he dozed off then jerked awake to find a huge Dewa man watching him from the road, his immense belly barely restrained by body armor of polished pink and violet leather strips. The man's coiffure was so heavily oiled that it left a greasy patina to the rolls of fat on the back of his neck, and his naked arms and shoulders and flat red face were spattered all over with healed pits and the puckered grooves of slash wounds.

You're carrying something with you, Jirobei said.

No concern of yours.

Jirobei looked past him. He gazed up at the steeply vertical mountains, the peaks already white with snow. You don't belong here.

I'm called Taro, the Hell-kite of Edo, harvester of bandits. And no one disputes my ferocity.

Jirobei came over and sat down across from him, his massive buttocks resting directly on the dirt. What's your family name?

Family name?

He indicated the two sword hilts protruding from the Hell-kite's obi sash. Your samurai name.

Taro of Edo is what I use.

Jirobei said nothing.

The Hell-kite waited then said, Is this the road to the Dewa town of Black Feathers?

Is that where you wish to go?

I've been in these mountains for weeks fighting bandits. I need rest now. I need good food and wine and warm quilts to sleep on.

Jirobei's eyes on him did not waver. What are you carrying?

The Hell-kite pulled the harquebus up onto his lap in a demonstration of ownership; but Jirobei held his hand extended with the fat red palm turned upwards, thick as a saddle.

It's mine, said the Hell-kite, but he handed him the gun.

That too.

He picked up the bundle and gave it to him.

Jirobei examined the harquebus then put it aside. He unfolded the blood-stiffened robe until the mangled head was exposed, hatched with slash marks, bits missing, a shard of half-jaw wrenched out sideways, the whole of it clotted and foul. You're supposed to wash it. You wash it then comb out the hair and oil it then configure the topknot again with a white-paper tie and attach a name tag to it. You mount it on a shelf-stand and scent it with incense. Or, if you require it for activities at a later date, you place it in a cask of rice wine as a preservative and attach the name tag to the cask handle.

I didn't have time to do any of that.

Jirobei said nothing.

Who would do all that?

Samurai do that for the men they kill. Jirobei studied him, his eyes like two frozen stones buried behind fat red slabs of flesh. I myself don't.

So I guess that means you aren't samurai. I guess I didn't need to be told that.

Jirobei placed the mangled head to one side then set the harquebus there too. Give me your long sword.

Never, said the Hell-kite.

Give it to me.

Why do you want it?

Give it to me.

The Hell-kite looked down at his hands unseeingly. What will happen if I do?

What would happen was what was meant to happen. You walked to it, and I walked to it, Jirobei said. He told him that each action in the world fit itself. It was perfect in the shape and heft of its occurrences, neither too long nor too short, neither too heavy nor too light. Every instant was seated within the completion of itself. None needed expansion, none needed revision. Whatever is done here was always meant to be done, Jirobei said. In accordance with this sky and these mountains, our path and its tall grasses, the birds and insects that live in them, the earth they burrow into and the wind they ride. He told him that every incident was as it was meant to be. How could it ever be otherwise? Can you even conceive of an instance that fails to conform to the expectations of the world? Of course you can't. The idea is impossible. From the day you were born, you were coming here to me. You must understand this in order to accept yourself as you are and as you were meant to be. The sword wants the transfer. Hand it to me.

I can't...

You can't?

The Hell-kite shook his head, his lower lip quivering and his eyes filling with tears. I'm afraid.

You're afraid. Yes. Jirobei reached over and lifted the sword away, the suddenness of it such that the Hell-kite's mouth dropped open in surprise.

Jirobei drew the blade out and observed the dullness of the skin of the steel, the traces of discoloring that would soon become rust, the dents and nicks on the cutting edge uncorrected, the tip bevel blunted.

You are not samurai.

The Hell-kite looked back at him, trying to produce a scorn he did not feel, his tears overflowing now, sliding down both cheeks.

You carry weapons that are forbidden, and you have slain a man without permission. You are a criminal.

Who are you to say that? cried the Hell-kite of Edo. He seized the front of his grubby robe with both hands and held it closed, gripping the fabric until his knuckles turned white. Who are you at all?

Jirobei examined the neglected blade again then said, Sit up straighter.

You're not a person who can tell me what to do! the Hell-kite cried, his weeping eyes squeezing out frightened tears; but he did straighten his back in spite of himself, and his head came away without a moment of doubt, his life's blood leaping up from its neck stump in a single gasp then slowing and seeping out naturally.

Jirobei went into the hills to gather dry wood. He built his pyre around the Hell-kite, who still sat clutching shut the front of his robe in the obscene modesty of his fear, blood coating his knuckles and wrists and pooling in his lap. Jirobei piled the swords and the new-style gun there too, and added the two heads, one a disgrace, the other cut cleanly. He sat with the pyre even after it had burned down; and he raked through the ashes, dragging out the blackened sword blades and the gun barrel with its lock and breech and firing mechanism charred. He broke the sword blades and used a rock to smash the gun breech with its flange cover and serpentine lever, but the gun barrel itself was too stiff to bend or break, and he tossed it into a brushy gorge.

 

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