A man of peace seeks strenght to face a duel.
Taka Wakameda wrapped the wooden boxes containing his sumi-e scrolls and prepared to leave. He went to the alcove, took his sword off the rack, and put it under the obi tied around his waist.
His wife, Kiyomi, accompanied him to the door and struck two flints, producing sparks over his back, to ensure a safe return. Kneeling on the floor, she bowed. “May you be careful.”
Taka opened the sliding door, turned back, and smiled. “Give an offering to our ancestors and pray the sword master Ogi-san likes my attempts at art.”
He stepped outside and glanced up, the sun was a fourth of its way up to its zenith. He would be early if he went straight to the honorable sword master’s home, and that wouldn’t do. So making a small detour, he walked along the banks of the river to admire the cherry blossoms.
The pale pink blossoms reminded him of Kiyomi’s youthful cheeks. Although they’d been married for almost two years, they were still childless. Yet, he considered himself a lucky man for having such a fine wife. Last night they had decided that on the next auspicious day they would go with an offering to the Shrine of Fertility. Dreamily imagining a daughter as beautiful as Kiyomi, he didn’t pay attention to the road. Thus, he didn’t see the bamboo pole sticking out. Placed there by a trio of ruffians, it supported a hanger holding a kimono. Walking into it, he kicked it over, sending the kimono down into the dust.
A young samurai in an expensive kimono rushed out. “You clumsy fool! Look what you’ve done. You can’t expect me to wear that again.” His two friends standing behind him scowled.
Taka, realizing he’d been set up, nonetheless apologized, “Forgive me for my clumsiness. Let me take it to my wife to clean it.”
The samurai on the left grabbed the hilt of his sword and leaned forward. “Do you think such a fine kimono can be so easily cleaned? I’ll cut you down for insulting the son of Lord Nagumo, my master.”
The heir to Lord Nagumo’s estate laid a restraining hand on his companion’s arm. He stretched and narrowed his eyes. “It’s alright, I feel forgiving today. I’ll give him two days to repay me for my ruined kimono or challenge me to a duel.”
The samurai on the right jutted out his chin. “Did you hear the young master? You're lucky he’s letting you live. Come back here in two days with five gold pieces and he’ll forgive you.” With that, they turned their backs and left, leaving the kimono in the dust.
Burning with shame and anger, Taka stood in the road staring at the intricate shapes and patterns on the kimono. Slowly they started spinning, increasing in speed, they leapt out. Now they were immense, filling his senses, gyrating over him, changing into laughing taunting faces. By the time he snapped out of his hallucination, the three had disappeared.
He remembered his appointment with Ogi-san. He turned and quickening his pace, headed for the sword master’s home.
Some time later, he was looking at the sign next to the gate. It read in big bold characters, THE WAY OF THE WARRIOR: SWORD, ARCHERY, & PHILOSOPHY. And in smaller strokes at the bottom, Ogi Shintaro: headmaster.
He opened the modest gate and stepped into the front yard. The path to the house was very narrow, carpeted with small black pebbles, and with thick, well tended bushes on each side. He could see that it had been designed to be defended by one man. As he neared the house, he heard the shouts of a man exercising with a sword.
Shintaro was stripped to the waist with the top of his kimono hanging from his obi. Without stopping his morning regimen, Shintaro asked, “Is that you, Wakameda-san?”
Taka replied from outside the front door, “Yes, Ogi-san. I’m sorry to disturb you, perhaps I should return later?”
“No, please wait. I just need to wash up.” Shintaro picked up a bucket of cold water and poured it over his steaming body. After drying himself off and putting on a new kimono, he went to welcome his guest.
Shintaro opened the door and bowed. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Wakameda-san. Please come in.”
Taka returned the bow and paused. “I’m sorry to disturb your home.”
“My home is shabby, please honor it with your presence.”
The formalities done, Shintaro led Taka to the room adjoining his garden, where he had just ended his exercise. He offered his guest a cushion beside the hibachi, a pot of water already steaming on top of it. Skillfully making a cup of tea and placing it on a saucer, he slid it carefully across the tatami to his guest.
Seeing that Taka didn’t take the tea, Shintaro asked, “Is there something wrong?”
Taka placed both hands flat on the tatami and bowed deeply. “I have a request.”
“What? Interesting developments so early in the morning? Excellent! What can I do for you?”
“I must accept a duel to uphold my honor. Regretfully, I have no skill with a sword or with any other weapon. I ask for some advice so that I do not shame my family name.”
“Who must you fight and why?”
Taka related the events at the river and the ultimatum from Lord Nagumo’s son.
Shintaro frowned. “That would be the worthless Nobumasa and his two dogs, Tsuneo and Gombei. The world would be better off without them. Nobumasa is a problem, I’ve heard his stroke is clean and powerful. Alright, show me your skill or lack of. Leave your sword here and take that wooden one. Let us go to the garden.”
They faced each other, arms held straight out, wooden sword against wooden sword. Shintaro lowered his arms and commanded, “Attack!”
Taka attacked with all his strength, but his sword was easily slapped aside. “Attack!” Again, the same result. Again, again, and again, until finally he fell into the dirt, out of breath.
Shintaro adjusted his kimono. “What you say is true. You have little skill with a sword.”
Taka knelt in the dirt and bowed. “Forgive me. Is there nothing that can be done to improve my skill?”
Shintaro smiled. “Your skill I can improve, but time is lacking. Skill, however, doesn’t always determine the result of a duel. Come, let us take a rest.”
They sat on the bench extending from the house. Shintaro threw a piece of food to the ornamental carp in his pond. “If these fish were released into the real world, most of them would be devoured within a few days. A few lucky ones might last long enough to learn something about survival, but their bright colors would doom them. If I were their teacher, I could only teach them how to die.”
Taka nodded understanding. “Then teach me how to die.”
“There is time enough for that tomorrow. Now, I’d rather look at your scrolls.”
Taka sold all his scrolls, but didn’t feel in the least elated. On the long walk home he rehearsed what he would say to his wife. She was a samurai woman and she would be able to accept his fate. Explanation of his actions would not be necessary. What would be difficult to explain was his hope that she would find another husband, although he loved her with all his soul.
He would tell her tomorrow. Today he would pretend to be happy from the sale of his scrolls and give her a special day to remember. Picking up his pace, he went to the fish market and bought Kiyomi’s favorite delicacies. Next, he went to the best kimono shop and picked out a beautiful kanzashi for her hair.
He arrived finally at his home, but paused at the door for he could hear Kiyomi. He put his ear closer and heard her singing, the song had been very popular in the days when he was courting her and it stirred memories. He took a deep breath, slid open the door and with his happiest voice yelled, “Hey, I did it! I sold everything. Kiyomi! I got something for you.”
Kiyomi appeared wiping her wet hands on her apron. She knelt and bowed, “Welcome home, my husband. I’m very thankful for your wonderful skill with a brush. We must thank our ancestors for their efforts in fostering your success.”
They went to the altar in their living room, rang the bell, offered incense, and gave their thanks. Taka indicated for Kiyomi to sit down then joined her. He gave her the package from the fish market. “Here, a sea bream.”
Kiyomi’s eyes widened. “It’s so big! It must have cost a small fortune.”
Putting his right hand into the sleeve of his left arm, Taka took out a small wooden box. “And here’s a present for you, dear wife.”
Pressing her body against her husband, she rested her cheek on his shoulder. “I’m the happiest woman in the world.”
Taka felt the tears rising, he couldn’t let her see them. Forcing her off, he said, “Come on, open it.”
Opening the box, Kiyomi gave a squeal of delight. Rushing to the mirror, she lifted the mirror’s protective cloth and inserted the kanzashi into her hair. “It’s so beautiful! Thank you.”
“But not as beautiful as you.”
That night, lying in bed with Kiyomi’s head on his chest, he knew it had been one of the best days in his life.
Late next morning, he picked up the two lunch boxes his wife had prepared and went to the sword master’s home for his final lesson.
Hearing Taka walking on the pebbles, Shintaro stepped outside to greet him. “Good morning, Wakameda-san. Let’s go for a walk.”
Taka bowed, returned the greeting, and stepped in behind Shintaro. “Where are we going, Ogi-san?”
“Just follow me.” They entered a grove of oak trees and walked to a solitary cherry tree in full bloom. Shintaro smiled. “Look at this tree. The blossoms each with five petals, as soon as one falls the rest follow. Each blossom in its time of greatest glory floating down in destruction, forming an elegant carpet over the dirt and dead leaves of this forest. Such a pleasing tree!”
Taka looked at his teacher. “Thank you for the lesson, Ogi-san. Please join me for lunch under this tree. My wife prepared lunch boxes for us, she is not a good cook, and I apologize if the taste doesn’t suit you.”
Bowing, Shintaro took a lunch box, opened it, and took a bite. “Um! Truly delicious!” Watching the petals flutter down, they ate the rest of the meal in silence.
Taka bowed and made a final request, “I would be honored if Ogi-san witnessed my final hour.”
“The honor is mine. I shall make some preparations, please come to my home, tomorrow morning.”
With a final bow Taka left.
That evening as Kiyomi lay in his arms he told her what he had to do. “It will certainly mean my death. I wish we could have had more time together, but it’s no use cursing fate. I have two requests to ask of you. The first is to clean my body before the priest is called and the second is to find a worthy husband.”
A tear flowed down her cheek to touch Taka’s chest. “Before you came home yesterday, a letter was delivered by one of Lord Nagumo’s servants to remind you to bring the gold. I'm so proud you chose death over shame. And so happy you think so much of me. I will proudly clean your body but I will never marry another.”
The next morning, Taka was awaken by the gentle voice of Kiyomi, “Dear husband, your tea is prepared.”
Getting up, he put on the pure white undergarments and dark kimono that Kiyomi had laid out. After drinking his tea, he put his swords under his obi, and gave his final offering at the altar. His wife stayed kneeling at the entrance of their home waiting for him to mentally prepare himself for his death. Soon, he was ready. As he left, she silently bowed until her forehead nearly touched the floor.
Striding along the path through the rice fields, the wind blew against his face; never had it tingled so keenly. He reached the crest of the hill and took a deep breath; never had it tasted so delicious. Turning around, he gazed at the town in the distance; never had it appeared so special.
When Taka entered through the sword master’s gate, Shintaro was standing behind a small narrow table in front of his home. They bowed, then Shintaro poured two cups of sake. Offering one to Taka, he said, “Wakameda-san, may the gods favor you.”
They downed their drinks in one gulp, then headed for the bridge spanning the brook flowing under pink blossoms.
Nobumasa, flanked by Gombei and Tsuneo, was standing in front of the bridge when he saw Taka and a companion appear from the mist. He swaggered forward and spoke, “A nice day for a walk, did you...”. Then, he noticed the look of serenity on Taka’s face, the look of someone ready to die.
Stepping backward he stuttered, “You, you're, you're forgiven, ke...keep your money.” And with that, the three turned around and disappeared into the mist.
Shintaro turned to Taka. “My last lesson, Wakameda-san. Once you prepare yourself for death, you will be far stronger than those who fear it.”
Taka bowed deeply and gave his sword to Shintaro. “Ogi-san, please hold this for me.” Then raising his kimono over his knees, he ran as fast as he could back home. To Kiyomi.