A tale of love and loss in ancient Japan. 2nd place, Journey through the Genres. Mar 13.
My heart warms at the mere memory. I can still feel, now, the soft dirt of the warn path underfoot, still smell the floral, earthy scent and feel the sharp yet refreshing mountain breeze.
The wind through the trees, rose and fell like the sea against the shore and whistled through narrow rock gullies like the sweetest flute. My weary heart felt stilled before even reaching the village proper. A dozen elegant wooden structures gripped the steep valley edge while the only flat ground lay dominated by a temple structure, its tower a full three floors high, standing defiant against the strong mountain winds. I knew then I had found my sanctuary.
Legs weary from travel, I settled myself in the village tea-house, cup in hand, and there I saw the village’s only blemish. The split and corroded remains of a long dead tree. Curiously, rather than being removed or shrouded from view, it had been enshrined with grass rope and surrounded with offerings. Such reverence signified a worthy tale.
Hearing the bustling of the aged proprietor behind me, I turned. “Honoured sir, might I enquire as to the meaning behind that stump?”
The man’s wrinkles deepened as he smiled and moved forward. “Ah, the sacred cherry tree of love.”
His expression turned dreamy as he gazed upon it. “Many a villager found love praying beneath that tree. I, too, found my beloved wife after kneeling to it in prayer. Such a sad tale there is in its downfall. For over a hundred years the tree showered the village and all who visited with love until…”
Hashin Sou the samurai beheld the village before him. This was his place of birth and yet not even a shadowy memory remained. But deep in his soul he felt the connection; the fulfilment of homecoming. He would set up a dojo here. It was remote but, by his reputation, students would come. He would settle, find love and raise a family.
In the months following his arrival, his dojo took off, as expected. More than two dozen students sought his instruction. Yet romance eluded him. He was young no more. Few women in the village were unattached and of the young ones that were, who would look for a battle scarred, age worn, samurai as a partner? His spirits fell.
Hashin Sou prayed every day for months at the temple yet still found no love. Finally, he approached a priest in despair.
“Tell me how I might find love,” he implored. “Daily I pray to the gods but they do not hear.”
The kindly old priest laid a hand on the samurai’s shoulder. “You have been praying in the wrong place. Try the sacred cherry tree, where the young seek their love.”
The Samurai’s gaze followed the priest’s hand towards the ancient form of a cherry tree. It stood, stripped bare by winter. Desolate and frail against the howling wind. He had seen it before and marvelled at its grandeur but would it really bring him love?
“Pray to it every morning and when its bloom is full, love will find you.”
Despite a little doubt, the samurai followed the priest’s directions in earnest, and as the tree began to bud, his spirits rose. But when bloom after bloom opened and still no love was presented, his heart fell.
Then, one morning, as he approached the cherry to pray, he saw her; a woman with hair the colour of the earth and skin as pale and fair as any Geisha. He could draw no breath and stood enraptured as the wind lifted her hair, trailing it through the air. Her beauty came not with youth but age as she could not have been many years shy of him.
She had bowed to him before he remembered his manners and, in haste, he responded with his own.
She smiled at him. “Have you come to pray for love, too?”
Those green eyes, so rare and so alive, like the first foliage of spring. He could only nod.
"Then let us pray together." She invited him with a gesture to kneel beside her.
All his prayers and all his wishes…
Every morning he returned and every morning she was there. They spoke, shared tea on the rise over looking the tree and, finally, as the bloom faded, Hashin Sou declared his love and asked for her hand in marriage.
“I can think of no greater honour.” She held out her hand. “But know this; I have no family that can vouch for me or pay my way. I am alone in this world.”
Hashin Sou had long been a wealthy and independent man. He needed no dowry or family connections to dictate his love and so they were wed. Before that very cherry tree they gave their vows. Years of happy union followed and the birth of two fine children a boy and a girl. But such happiness was never meant for mortals and so one windswept night it ended.
That night the samurai was woken by the fiercest howling wind, he could ever recall. The very timbers creaked around them and his wife sat huddled against her knees with such fear tightening her face.
Hashin Sou drew his wife into his arms and held her tight. “The house is strong. There is nothing to fear.”
But she shook her head, tears flowing down her cheeks. “I cannot withstand it. It tears at my limbs. I cannot…”
“Do not fear…” the samurai calmed her. “There is no wind in here.”
But her fear did not ease.
“I am sorry,” she turned her tear streaked face towards him. “You prayed so diligently to me and yet I could find no mortal to share your love and so I sought to share it myself. But our time is at an end. I can feel my body breaking. Please, show your love to me through our children. They will stay with you even if I cannot.”
She… She couldn’t be… Hashin Sho’s gaze passed through the wall in the direction of the cherry. He had fallen in love with the spirit of the cherry tree.
As his mind searched for a way to save the tree, the crack of breaking timber sounded, louder even than the wind, and he turned to his wife in horror. All he could do was gaze into her green eyes as they faded away into nothing.
As soon as dawn broke and the wind died, Hashin Sou dashed out to the remains of the cherry tree, his beautiful wife. Her trunk had been completely severed with only a jagged stump left in place.
As he knelt, his hand on her bark, in an agonised silence, the children emerged. Solemnly, they approached the crushed canopy of their fallen mother and each took four twigs. These they planted on either side of the path leading to the village so the seeds of their mother’s beauty could live on. And so they have, to this day.
Having stared fixedly at the stump throughout the tale, I finally turned my gaze. The sorrow of the tale left my soul heavy.
“And what of the samurai?”
The old man refilled my cup.
“He could no longer find the energy to train himself or others and so gave up the way of the samurai. He sat here on this very slope every day, keeping watch over the remains of his wife. Eventually, he built a house here, so he could see her every moment and, in time, he started serving tea to travellers.”
“Then you are!” My grip slipped on the cup in my hand, spilling tea across the table.
The old man nodded. “If you wish to see my wife in all her glory, return here just before midnight.”
It seemed an odd instruction and, I reasoned, the old man could have made the whole story up. Still, the haunting tale would not leave my mind and I tossed in my bed that night until just before midnight when I rose. There was no harm in looking. I was awake, anyway.
I returned to the stump and found the old man waiting there. A man and a woman, not much older than me, stood at each side of him. Their eyes! Even in the moonlight, the rare green could not be mistaken. Could the tale be true?
“She comes!” the woman pointed into air above the stump.
I gasped. From nothing, burst the form of a majestic cherry tree in full bloom, not substantial but as if etched in the air by the moonlight. It stayed for the briefest of moments and then vanished.
I have journeyed far since that time and never again seen such a wonder. Every spring at the first sight of the cherry blossoms, my mind returns to that quiet village and their sacred cherry tree stump. I often wonder if I ought to have stayed there, longer than the brief few months I did, and prayed to the cherry tree for love. But then I remember the tale and that love can bring both joy and sorrow, for nothing lasts forever. Even the trees.
Word count 1600.