A woman's fate depends on the men in her life. A samurai tale.
Tea and Blossoms
The constellations gazed down on the two solitary figures converging on a narrow path. One, carrying a stout staff and wearing the large bowl hat of a Buddhist monk, stood waiting. The other, carrying a single sword and wearing the fancy clothes of a wayward samurai, approached.
The monk planted his feet widely across the path. “Samurai, I am Ryuhaku, from Mt. Hiei. State your name, so I may offer prayers at your imminent death.”
“I, a worthless wanderer, go by the name Sakura. There would be no honor in cutting me down.”
“I seek not honor, only pleasure from ridding the world of your kind.”
“Is not peace your creed?”
“Peace? I know not how it feels since Oda burnt our Temple to black bones and slew my brothers. The blood of nineteen samurai has since eased the pain in my heart. This evening yours shall.”
Removing the thick fur sheath from his staff, Ryuhaku revealed the foot long blade. With a roar he stepped forward, sweeping the spear down, aiming the blade at Sakura’s throat.
Sakura jumped lightly back, the blade cutting the air in front of his face. Running forward, he unsheathed his sword, raising it above his head.
Ryuhaku crouched, thrusting his spear at his rushing opponent, aiming to plunge it into the stomach. He raised his head as Sakura sailed over the staff and swung his blade down, splitting open his hat and slicing through flesh and bone.
Ryuhaku fell. As he lay on his back across the path he saw an apparition standing over him. His last mortal comment was, “Magnificent.”
Taking out folded white paper from his kimono, Sakura wiped the fat and blood from his sword and dropped them on the dead monk. They fluttered in the breeze for a moment before the wind picked them up and cast them over the field. With a flourish Sakura sheathed his sword and looked up, to him it seemed the twinkling sky was applauding.
In the distance the light from a farming village beckoned. He hoped it would have an inn.
Next morning at the gate of the largest estate in town a messenger shouted, “Open the gates, I have important news for Lord Nagumo.”
A few minutes later he was kneeling in front of the paper door of his master. “I bring news of Ryuhaku.”
The clear voice of Lord Hideki Nagumo pierced the door, “Enter. What news do you bring of the slayer of my bodyguard?”
The messenger shut the door behind him and from a bow said, “Ryuhaku is dead. I have seen the body, he was cut dead with one clean stroke.”
Amazed, Nagumo asked, “Whose sword?”
“No one knows for sure, although there is speculation on a samurai never before seen in these parts. He spent the night at a small inn not far from where Ryuhaku’s body was found. Neither his name nor his business is known, but he voiced interest in getting a job here.”
Nagumo thought for a moment. “Bring the innkeeper and keep him at the gate, if he recognizes our stranger welcome and bring him to me. Oh, and get someone to find my lazy son, Nobumasa.”
At The Tea and Blossoms Nobumasa Nagumo was lounging with the establishment’s most recent hostess, Hikaru. She was a red silk package adorned with white peach blossoms, rust orange leaves, and drifting dandelion seeds. An obi of golden ferns on ebony wrapped her waist with an intricate bow behind. A black ornately flowered inner gown peeked out around her neck, hinting at the treasure within. He was dazzled by the classic beauty: high aristocratic nose, thin almond eyes, and milk white skin set against jet black hair. A black mole under her left eye gave her an aura of mystery, while her small red lips enticed raw emotions.
He gave her a tortoise shell comb carved with cranes flying over a man riding a hoary sea turtle. “It’s the best comb I could find. Do you like it?”
Hikaru’s eyes shone. “It’s wonderful, it’s the most beautiful comb I’ve ever seen. Thank you very much.”
Nobumasa slipped his arms around her waist pulling her close. “The most beautiful comb for the most beautiful woman.”
Hikaru lightly slapped his hand. “Don’t be naughty so soon. Tell me more about yourself. You’re so interesting and alluring.”
Before he could answer there was the sound of someone kneeling outside the paper door. “Nagumo-san, we apologize for the intrusion. Two retainers have requested your presence, they are waiting for you at the entrance.”
Cursing, he followed the messenger to the entrance. Tsuneo and Gombei bowed. “Your father calls.”
At the estate Nobumasa was immediately escorted to the guest room. Lord Nagumo turned to his son. “Nobumasa, this is Sakura, my new bodyguard. Thanks to him, Ryuhaku is in the nether world with his brothers. After his bath, take him to the pleasure district for dinner and entertainment.”
Nobumasa saw a man in his twenties, thin, a face with delicate features and slightly drooping eyes. He bowed slightly. “Leave it to me, Father. He’ll have a warm welcome.”
After the bath and a new kimono, Sakura was ready to go. “I’m reborn, I feel this evening will be something to remember.”
Nobumasa smiled. “On that I can assure you, the chef is talented and the women, too.”
“I’m very grateful for the hospitality, Nagumo-san.”
“It’s only the start of, I hope, a long relationship. Now, let’s embark on our little adventure.”
Unwisely, Nobumasa chose The Tea and Blossom and unfortunately for him, the tea of Sakura and Hikaru would be a perfect blend. Dinner was superb and the singing and dancing of Hikaru beyond charming. Nobumasa had done his job well, too well, he would later rue.
On the way back to the estate, Nobumasa took Sakura to a more private drinking establishment. Renting a room, he ordered sake and requested privacy. He offered Sakura the small conical cup and poured the clear lukewarm rice wine, while Sakura held the cup between thumb and forefinger. With one quick pull Sakura emptied the cup.
“Sakura-san, I have a favor to ask. There’s a bug I would like to get rid of. I’ve heard he’s good. He even has a school, though he shouldn’t be a problem for someone of your skill.”
“Does your father know?”
“I’d rather not disturb him over such minor matters.”
“I see. Well, who is he and how do I find him?”
“His name is Ogi Shintaro and he lives on the edge of town at his dojo, The Way of the Warrior.”
“Alright, I’ll take a look.” They drank a little more then returned to the estate.
The next morning after a leisurely breakfast, Sakura got directions to Ogi’s dojo and paid him a visit. Following the directions, he arrived at a modest gate with a sign beside it. The Way of the Warrior: Sword, Archery, Philosophy. Ogi Shintaro: headmaster.
Sakura opened the gate and stepped onto the narrow pebble path leading to the straw thatched house. The door to the house slid open. A mid-aged man, thin eyed, with high nose and weathered face, sword under obi, stepped out, “State your name and business.”
“My name is Sakura and I desire to test my skill.”
Shintaro had another name he had never revealed, Momiji. He was a follower of an ancient discipline that gave those who master it the name of a tree. Sakura could be another disciple. There was a simple way to find out, “An old gnarled pine hangs over a precipice.”
Startled, Sakura paused then replied, “A cone goes over the falls.”
“Welcome, Sakura, my name is Momiji. A name I never thought I’d be using again.”
Sakura and Momiji, two trees; the first glorious in spring, the other magnificent in autumn, entwined the branches of friendship.
When Sakura returned, Nobumasa asked, “What happened? Did you meet Ogi?”
“Yes, but I can’t do what you desire.”
Nobumasa glared, “Why not?”
“I see no reason to kill him.”
“You eat and sleep under the house of Nagumo and I am the heir.”
“Yes, but you are not the lord. I was hired by your father to protect the clan, not to settle whatever petty quarrel you may have.”
Nobumasa stomped away. “I’ll remember this.”
The days became weeks. Sakura became well known at the House of Tea and Blossoms, always asking for Hikaru, she always welcoming him.
Today he lay on the tatami, his head on her lap. Hikaru spoke softly, knowing he was sleeping. “Sakura, I had a dream this morning. It was about the day my father sold me to pay the family debts. Yes, I’m just a poor farmer’s daughter. Before he sold me he bought some candy for me. I remember how his hand shook when he paid for it. He said nice people were going to take care of me. He was looking at the ground when he said it, so I knew it wasn’t true. When I woke up, I was still dreaming.”
She touched the mole under her left eye, “I know this mole is my bane. It just teases me to hope for happiness.”
Finally the day came.
Sakura entered the tea house. “May I see Hikaru?”
The proprietor scowled. “She not available for you.”
“What do you mean? Not for me.”
“Her account is empty. She can no longer make up for the meager amount you pay.”
Mortified, Sakura paused, then asked, “How much will pay for her freedom?”
Greed rekindled the flames. The proprietor rubbed his hands. “A hundred gold pieces.”
Sakura turned and left. Outside he ran into Nobumasa, who sneered, “I overheard, I’m so sorry that your whore won’t be seeing you again.”
Smirking, Nobumasa watched Sakura turn the corner. A private meeting with Hikaru would make the day complete. He arranged one immediately.
Hikaru knelt on the tatami, facing the door, head deeply bowed. The maid hadn’t given the name of the guest. At the sound of the door sliding open, she said, “Welcome, may you find peace and joy in my humble room.”
She heard the jeering voice of Nobumasa. “So, now that you need money, you will please anyone.”
Bending down, he grabbed her chin and lifted her face. “Well, I have brought money. Sing and dance for me a love song.”
Hikaru rose and performed to the spiteful smile of Nobumasa. She poured all her feelings into the song, blocking everything out. Much later a maid saw her singing and dancing in an otherwise empty room.
The next morning the furious voice of Lord Nagumo was heard throughout the mansion, “Thieves! I’ve been robbed! Guards!”
All but one gathered in the yard. Suspicion was immediately voiced by Nobumasa, “Father, it’s Sakura. The ungrateful bum stole the money to pay a debt.”
Lord Nagumo was red with rage. “Find him!”
Four dozen men led by Nobumasa poured out of the gate into the crossroads in front of the estate. Nobumasa shouted, “Gombei, Tsuneo, Aoki, each of you, take a dozen men. Let’s split up here. Find Sakura and bring him back dead.”
On the edge of town Momiji poured himself a cup of tea. A small stem floated to the surface, vertically bobbing. He smiled, a good omen was always welcome. Hearing the gate open, he rose and put his sword under his obi. At the entrance he was surprised to see Sakura coming up the path with a young woman in a plain kimono.
Sakura spoke, “Momiji, we’re sorry to disturb you so early. This is Hikaru. I robbed Lord Nagumo to pay for her freedom. We need to know a way to the next village without being seen.”
Momiji stepped aside. “Come in, rest and have some tea. I need to get a few things and then I’ll be ready to take you there.”
Soon he was ready. He took them on a scarcely known path through the woods, reaching the village midway past the afternoon. He looked at Hikaru. “You’re tired and hungry. I know an inn where we can rent a private room.”
Hikaru looked down. “I’m sorry to put you to all this trouble. I’m fine. I can continue.”
Momiji insisted, “It’s better if we wait at an inn till sunset.”
Sakura protested, “You’ve done more than enough for us. Please, return home.”
“I can’t leave a friend in a time of need, you must understand.”
“Forgive me and thank you, brother.”
They waited at the inn till sunset then ventured on the road. By the time they reached the open field, the gleam from the full moon had surpassed the fading glow of twilight.
They hadn’t gone much farther when a shout was heard. Silhouetted against the light from the village were Nobumasa and a retinue of a dozen samurai. Momiji turned, “Sakura, we fight here. Hikaru, keep behind Sakura.”
Their thirteen opponents charged yelling. As they neared, they fanned out to attack from a myriad of angles. Momiji and Sakura unsheathed their swords. Taking out a dagger, Hikaru stepped behind them.
Momiji inhaled a large breath and flexed his stomach, gathering his inner ki*. With a roar he expended it into the foe. An invisible force struck Nobumasa and his men like a body blow, forcing them to a halt.
Seeing their chance, Momiji and Sakura rushed into battle slaying four with four strokes. Slicing through skin, bone, and organs, fountains of blood heated the air before cascading down to the ground. The ki* faded away.
Now the three were in the middle of a circle of nine. Nobumasa screamed, “Attack, kill them!”
Momiji and Sakura split, striking in opposite directions, Hikaru following behind Sakura. Not expecting a counterattack, two more died, their skulls split open from the powerful down stroke of steel blades.
Furious, Nobumasa rushed Sakura from behind. Hikaru raised her dagger. A futile gesture. He cut her down, the sword sweeping through her kimono and deep into her breast.
With a wail to the heavens, Sakura somersaulted high over the head of Nobumasa, landing behind him. With one stroke his sword sliced through Nobumasa’s shoulder to the opposite waist. Nobumasa stood motionless, a shudder went through his body, and his upper torso slithered diagonally off his lower body and with a thud hit the dust. The others, seeing their leader killed, fled.
Hikaru was in Momiji’s arms, the full moon bringing to sharp contrast the mole of sorrow under her left eye. Bending over her, Sakura yelled, “We’ll get a doctor. You’ll be fine.”
She held his arms, “Sakura, I’m afraid... I don’t want to die.”
Her hands opened and fell. A star streaked acrossed the firmament. Raising a howl of grief, Sakura sliced the air with his sword, splitting the star in two. Once more his sword sliced the remnants of the star, exploding it.
Momiji stared in disbelief, then glanced down at Hikaru. Her mole split in four and faded away.
In the vastness of space a vortex of elements ignited a nuclear flame. Somewhere a child was born.