Honor We Choose: Autumn Part II
I wanted to share a short story I wrote when I was still in college. I think it's one of the best short stories I've written even though it can be very cliche and tell-y rather than show-y. Nevertheless, I'm proud of it as one of my earliest works, and it's always interesting to revisit where you've been in the past. Here's part 2 of 3. Enjoy.
Satoru knelt on the wooden floor. "My lord, news from the village of Mujaki."
He looked up at the shogun. Shogun Hibiki's aura seemed to demand respect and admiration from those who looked on. His confident eyes, the polite smile, and understanding posture he possessed whenever any person of importance entered his presence. His kind and generous heart seemed to show through whenever he gave token gifts to the common people. In his travels that often took him all around the kingdom, Satoru found few people who did not respect the shogun. He seemed to be the son of the gods, charismatic, endowed with a fair complexion, and unbeatable in combat ever since he vanquished the previous shogun and took his place. Yet the thought shot into the back of Satoru’s mind, "If they all really knew......"
From his stately throne, Shogun Hibiki looked at Satoru with interest. "What is your report, Morimoto?"
With his head still bowed, Satoru replied, "My lord, I have discovered a prominent member of the rebel forces living in Mujaki. Apparently he has gone under the guise of a blacksmith."
"I see. Have you disposed of him yet?"
"No, my lord, I thought it prudent to report to you first. I ask your Excellency if you would have this man delivered dead or alive."
Shogun Hibiki smiled and gave a throaty chuckle, "You may dispose of him and bring me back his head. I will not tolerate any mutinous individuals in my kingdom."
"Yes, my lord," Satoru stood up and turned to leave.
"Oh, there is one more thing, Morimoto," Shogun Hibiki added, "Please take Tsukinai Hageshii with you and give the village of Mujaki the shogun’s blessing."
"My lord, they are unaware of the rebel’s presence. Is it wise to give them your blessing?"
"Do you question my orders, Morimoto?" Shogun Hibiki asked in a threatening tone.
Satoru closed his eyes and clenched his fist. The shogun’s words echoed in his mind as it had many times in the past. After a moment of silence, he responded, "Yes, my lord. By your leave I will depart tomorrow morning." Satoru walked to the sliding door, turned toward the shogun and bowed. After the door was completely closed, he made his way to the exit. He walked past the cage of tigers, past the shogun’s collection of ancient artifacts and weapons, past the tables laden with tall stacks of coins collected for taxes, and past the neatly folded sheets of silk waiting to be made into the shogun’s clothes. Stepping outside, he past the endless number of pools filled with huge goldfish and the towering statue commemorating the shogun.
After a mile separated Satoru and the shogun’s palace, he slumped against a tree. Autumn had come, and the leaves turned from green to a dying gold and brown. Autumn's cool breeze and cloudy days reigned over the land. The measly sun rays that broke through the cloud cover didn’t generate enough heat to warm Satoru from the breeze blowing through the trees. In the distance, he could hear the sad ballad of the whales, mourning the passing of summer.
Satoru closed his eyes and gripped the hilt of his katana with both of his hands. "Do I have a choice anymore? There can be only one solution." As Satoru sat there, the retreating sun began to sink below the horizon, leaving him to meditate in the light of dusk. Noticing that the light was fleeing the land, he headed for home.
Karumi sat at the steps of the Morimoto residence, torch in hand and dagger in her sash. Despite the fact that the shogun's retainers kept the kingdom rather peaceful, the night still didn’t feel safe to Karumi. Her eyes darted back and forth in the night, looking for the appearance of her husband. Satoru never returned home so late without sending a messenger ahead.
She heard someone slowly approaching the house in the dark and drew her dagger. Only thieves and ronin soldiers traveled without a torch. "Who goes there?" A figure finally stepped into the meager light cast by Karumi's torch. She saw Satoru, shoulders sagging and head bowed. Karumi put her dagger away and looked at him, concerned. Although she had taught him about sensitivity and vulnerability, Satoru never showed any signs of sadness and depression --until now. In fact, Karumi had never seen him cry. Satoru shuffled his way to Karumi and held out his arms pleadingly.
She rushed to him and put her arms around him, and as he enclosed his arms around her, she laid her head on his shoulder. "What is the matter, Satoru?"
In a still, quiet voice, he replied, "Just hold me, kanai."
As they embraced each other, Satoru's body began to shudder as his eyes began to water. In a choked voice, Satoru said, "What have I done?" He paused and repeated in a softer voice, "What have I done?" Karumi only squeezed him tighter and waited for him to compose himself. But the fact remained. Satoru had almost cried. But this was enough for Karumi to start crying.
Entering the house, they sat down as Satoru conveyed the secret he always kept from Karumi. "So, the shogun's blessing is really an order to kill every single person in the village? I don't understand. Why would the shogun want to kill all the villagers? They don't even know this man is a rebel."
"He wants to send a message to the rebels. He wants them to feel guilty if they cause the death of a whole village. This way, their souls would never rest in peace.
Still shocked, Karumi responded, "I never thought Shogun Hibiki would do such things."
Angrily, Satoru said, "There is more. Since becoming head retainer, I have seen things--done things--that I never imagined. Hibiki would send me out at night and kidnap young girls so that he could sleep with them. I would retrieve prostitutes for him. I killed men on his whim I killed women who resisted his advances. I stole many of the artifacts he has displayed in his palace. I collected taxes from poor farmers who couldn't have enough money to feed their children." He paused. "You remember the village of Giseisha?"
Karumi nodded again. "Didn't a band of ronin warriors attack and pillage Giseisha? They killed everyone there....." It dawned on Karumi what Satoru was getting at. "You killed everyone there. Satoru?"
"The situation with Mujaki is the same as Giseisha, but I cannot live with more innocent blood on my hands."
Karumi was still reeling from these revealing truths. The tales of immorality and evil Satoru spoke of. Yet what shocked her most was Satoru's involvement in this--and his decision to keep her in the dark on the situation.
She whispered softly, "Why didn't you tell me? Do you know how much this hurts to know that I have been living under a lie?"
Satoru lowered his eyes in shame. "I am sorry. I have no excuse. I was being selfish. I didn't want you to leave me. I could not expect you to live with a monster like me, and I understand if you walk out the door right now."
Karumi sat behind him and embraced him from behind, kissing him on the nape of the neck. "I forgive you. I am just proud of the fact that you did come out and admit it. I can tell that you are full of regret and want to do something about it. You finally see that you have a responsibility to someone else other than the shogun. You have a responsibility to yourself. But you have still shed much innocent blood. How are you going to make it right before the gods?"
Satoru responded, "There can only be one way to redeem myself. Although I cannot undo that which has been done, I will make sure that Hibiki turns from his ways. If that does not work, then only blood will purify my hands."
"You understand you will be an outlaw for the rest of your life if you do what you plan."
"I know. But you are the one who taught me to protect others and look beyond myself."
Karumi faintly smiled and stood up, "You also understand that I cannot come with you."
Satoru stood up and put his hand on her shoulder, "Why not? Is it because I will be dishonorable for abandoning my position as head retainer and plotting worse deeds? Please do not leave me, Karumi. I need you more than ever to love me and support me." Taking his hand off Karumi's shoulder, Satoru closed his eyes and walked across the room, staring out the window into the starless night.
"It is not that. Even though your hands are stained with the blood of innocent people and you are going to betray the trust of your shogun, I still love you. But this you know already. I would not be able to live staying a step ahead of soldiers and constantly on the run. Besides, I would only slow you down and get in your way. I was not raised as a samurai warrior, and you cannot be looking over my shoulder all the time."
Still looking out the window, Satoru replied, "But I cannot just leave you here. They would exact revenge on you."
"I know," Karumi said calmly, "That is why I have to do what I have to do." She reached for her dagger. "Forgive me, Satoru. Please forgive me."
Satoru blinked, suddenly realizing what Karumi planned to do. Quickly turning around, he watched in horror as she raised the dagger with both hands, praying that gods would accept her soul. Satoru bolted across the room, trying to reach for the dagger. "Please, Karumi! You do not need to......" Satoru's words are interrupted as she plunged it into the right side of her stomach.
Satoru's eyes widened as he cried out, "NO!" but it was too late. Karumi clenched her teeth as she moved the dagger across her stomach and pulled it upward. In shock, Satoru grabbed the dagger out of her hand, but the damage had been done. A stream of red began to soak her kimono. Satoru held Karumi close to him. His heart cried out emotions he could not express.
Karumi's trembling hand took the gold rod out of her hair and placed it in Satoru's hand. Her hair fell down on Satoru's arm. In a soft voice, she said, "I will always be with you." As she paused, her eyes winced with pain. She continued even softer, "You made the right decision.......You followed your conscience." Karumi's body shivered as death wrapped its icy embrace, engulfing her soul.
There wasn't anything he could say at this moment. The stalwart samurai couldn't utter any words of love or compassion. Satoru clenched the gold rod in his hand as he felt Karumi’s body go limp. He held her body tighter to his as he shed a tear--a tear that fell on Karumi's cheek, mingling with her tears--the first snowflake of winter just before the snowstorm.
He threw the torch into the center of the room, and the flame caught fire on the circle of wood. In the middle of the circle lay Karumi, dressed in her marriage kimono. He stared at her face for the last time and walked out of the house. Burning some incense near the bonfire, Satoru prayed that Karumi's soul would join her ancestors and watch over him.
As the embers of the dying fire flickered, he looked into the ashes. "I can no longer shed any more tears of grief. From now on, there will only be the shedding of blood." He retreated into the night; his only companions were his katana, all the money he owned, Karumi's dagger and the gold rod.