Copyright © 2005
World-weary in general and war-weary in particular, Uharu Hideyoshi nevertheless meant to put a good face on this unpleasant business. After all, he had his Lord Takuta's good reputation to uphold. Never mind that at the Battle of Yagoshima, his patron Lord Takuta Morisama had been killed, dishonorably struck down by the poisoned dart of a ninja. Now Uharu, with Tabuta's other surviving retainers, must have revenge from the usurper Shimabuto. However, now on this cold winter's night, there was this current unpleasantness to attend to.
"Come out, Uharu!" a young man cried from outside. He deepened his voice a bit for dramatic effect. "Come out and meet your fate like a man."
Through the open inn door, Uharu saw a small cluster of men shivering in the swirling snow. Uharu was reminded of dragons as their frosty breath steamed from their mouths. Do dragons wrap themselves in robes and shuffle cold feet? Uharu was not sure..
Uharu Hideyoshi sighed. This would be the third already this month. And he had so hoped that the winter snow might at last bring him to Shimabuto and closure. Uharu took a last sip of liu-ch'a, green tea, from the small porcelain bowl, and then stood up.
Neither tall nor short, neither young nor old, Uharu Hideyoshi seemed a typical samurai. His robe was neither resplendent nor plain. The obi or sash that closed it was charcoal gray and plain. Nothing about him seemed unusual or distinctive, except, perhaps, his swords which were worn in his obi, his sash. His katana, the long sword named "Dragon's Blood," had been passed down from great-grandfather, father to son, until now it was Uharu Hideyoshi who served the sword. The magnificent blade was red-tinted; some said because of its' maker's curious forging technique. Others believed this to be nothing more than the inevitable process of staining, for this sword had been much used. Those given to supernatural speculation suggested certain unsavory incantations had been performed by a spirit, a kami of the forge, at the time the sword was formed, and that it now thirsted for blood. Also at Uharu's hip was the wakizashi called "Little Brother", an unusual nickname for this short sword, one with ominous Zen over-tones. Does not the younger brother cry for attention when slighted or ignored?
Suppressing a sigh, Uharu stepped into his geta, his elevated wooden clogs, and made his way across the portal, out into the snowy courtyard. A dozen men quickly stepped aside. Now the courtyard was ringed with men, mostly curious spectators. Across the flag-stones stood a young samurai, tall and proud. Overhead the ancient stars watched, cold and distant. The challenger's coiffure was just so; his top knot oiled and gleaming. His beautifully embroidered blue kimono was spotless and well-pressed. The golden dragon embroidered on his right sleeve was inconspicuous and tastefully done. His feet were warmed by tabi, socks with the large toe separated from the lesser four. These were absolutely white. So white in fact that a large snowflake seemed to disappear as it passed between Uharu's eyes and the challenger's foot. The young samurai's getas were clean and free of mud. By contrast, Uharu's tabi were threadbare and gray, while his own geta seemed worn by comparison. The grips of this young man's katana and wakazashi were wrapped in sharkskin dyed sky-blue and beautifully inlaid with mother-of-pearl tigers. "Uharu Hideyoshi," the man cried in a loud, shrill voice, "as servitor of Lord Shimabuto, I formally challenge you! Your crimes and misdemeanors are too numerous to enumerate in full, but suffice it to declare as follows: that you traitorously took up arms against Lord Shimabuto in behalf of the pretender Takuta; and that you murderously killed our Lord's loyal vassals without conscience or remorse. For these crimes and others unmentioned yet heinous, satisfaction must be given."
Was the vapor cloud from the young man's mouth caused by the winter cold or the heat of his passion, Uharu wondered, then smiled. Yin against Yang; hot and cold; young and old. And this young Shimabuto man was very Yang! No point in wasting words with such a firebrand. Delicate snowflakes softly ghosted down from the dark sky; the dim yellow light of the courtyard lanterns added little illumination to the bright snowy evening. Uharu was pleased to find that the winter landscape had a blue tint. This he found charming. He recalled a certain painting of a winter scene in Kyoto by the artist Iko.
"Have you nothing to say for yourself?" the challenger demanded. "What say you, ronin?"
Excited whispering filled the courtyard. Such an insult!
All present knew that Uharu Hideyoshi served his dead lord Takuta Morisama as faithfully in death as in life. But a ronin is a master-less samurai, often a vagabond, and is generally held in contempt for his lack of affiliation and loyalty. There could be no turning away from such an insult. Even the challenger's retainers fidgeted and whispered among themselves at the audacity of the slur.
Uharu was neither surprised nor discomfited. Things were what they were. And this one was very Yang. Only Uharu had noticed that the young man in his excitement had forgotten to name himself as bushido protocol required.
The un-named challenger knew that Uharu, like most Takuta men, practiced the Jo-nai style of kenjutsu. Eschewing feints passes and counters, these southerners pressed their attacks straight ahead with determination. In fact, this aggressive style of Kyushu swordsmanship perfectly mirrored the flawed tactics that Lord Takuta Morisama had employed at Yagoshima. The old fool had personally led the suicidal charge up the steep volcanic slope into the teeth of Shimabuto's fortified position.
Of course Takuta had not known that Portuguese traders, in an attempt to curry favor with the powerful daimyo, had joined Shimabuto behind the stone wall at the top of the hill with several swivel cannon and firelock muskets. The resultant volley of grape shot and musket fire had broken the charge and decimated the Kyushu ranks. But this young samurai knew that even without the intervention of these gai-jin, the foreigners, the outcome would have been—could have been--no different. Such was his faith in Lord Shimabuto.
It had not been the will of Buddha the Enlightened that Uharu Hideyoshi should die with his master at Yagoshima. As Lord Takuta himself lay dying from the poisoned dart of Ninja, the old samurai had forbidden Uharu the privilege of taking his own life by seppuku. Uharu still recalled his master's final orders.
"First, you must find my wife the Lady Hirume and take her and my son Kenji to the old monastery at Hajoshima. There my son can grow to manhood and in time seek his own destiny. The monks will teach him all he needs to know. Beware the ninja! Once this had been done, then and only then, seek out Shimabuto and extract suitable vengeance."
However, it was the Daimyo's minions that Uharu always seemed to find, and not Shimabuto himself, whom Uharu so diligently sought. Once again here was another such menial blocking his path.
Uharu breathed the crisp winter air deep into his lungs; he cleared his mind of all extraneous thoughts as he entered the Z'en state of "no-mind." He became as one with "Dragon's Blood."
"Are you mute?" Shimabuto's man sneered. "What say you?"
Uharu spoke a single word.
In no wise backward, the young warrior attacked as Uharu had commanded. He rushed forward, full of confidence. As Lord Shimabuto's best student, was he not one of the finest—if not the very best—swordsman in all of Nippon? Two dead warriors slain by his katana were proof of his martial prowess.
Uharu, now fully in the state of "no-mind," also stepped forward, "Dragon's Blood" presented in salute. This was precisely what the young man had anticipated: simple and straight-forward. As he stepped across with his right foot, he delivered a vicious two-handed strike that "Dragon's Blood" just managed to parry.
The Shimabuto man's second stroke, a quick reverse two-handed overhead strike from parry, seemed to Uharu to fall as slowly as the snowflakes that danced and swirled about them. As natural as spring rain, "Little Brother" blossomed in Uharu's left hand.
For the briefest moment, the youthful samurai's eyes darted to the glimmer of Uharu's wakizashi. The point of his katana dropped ever so slightly. Faster than a striking asp, "Dragon's Blood" lightly kissed his throat. As beautiful as cherry buds opening after a spring rain, a small red mouth opened on the young man's throat.
"Nooo!" the young man mumbled as he sunk forward to his knees, gagging and choking on his own blood. His beautiful katana dropped to the snow. How could this be? Was he not the greatest… Onrushing blackness stifled the internal dialogue. Blood spewed from his mouths. He died.
Unseen by those that yet lived, Death coursed down from the icy firmament in an ivory sled pulled by two ghostly pale stallions. The black-cloaked specter reined in next to the fallen samurai. His spirit horses stomped their hooves and steam blew from their flaring nostrils; their ice-blue eyes glowed with unearthly luminescence. Still baffled, the youngster's soul rose up out of his body and stepped up to take his place in the sled next to Death. Again he looked back at his own corpse in puzzlement.
Meanwhile, red eyes burned beneath black cowl as Death favored Uharu with an awful, toothless grin and tapped him on the shoulder with a long, cold, skeletal finger. "Not this time, bold one," Death whispered sibilantly, "but perhaps soon. Perhaps soon I will come for you." Snapping the ebon reins, Death urged his diabolical team skyward. The young samurai still stared back in disbelief as Death and he ascended into the opening void.
Although Uharu saw nothing but the dead man at his feet and heard naught but the sibilant whispering of the night wind, a chill shivered down his spine.
Uharu gazed down at the dead samurai lying at his feet. Except for the second red-lipped mouth in the throat, he seemed to be sleeping. But now no vapor came from mouth or nose; his skin slowly began to blue as Grandfather Winter had his way. A snow flake wafted down to decorate one eyelash. Another followed. And another. As the youngster's cortège shuffled forward to take the body away, Uharu respectfully stepped aside. Next to the path was undisturbed pure white snow. Using "Dragon's Blood's" tip, Uharu quickly and subtly traced three lines of kanji characters:
Beautiful the flower,
That blossoms in the spring rain,
To fall in winter.
The characters thus writ were red—the red of dragon's blood. Below the Haiku he had written a number: twenty-seven. How many more would die before he found the one? As Uharu passed back into the inn, a large beautiful snowflake fell on the hot charcoal brazier at the door. Steaming, it became nothing, leaving behind no trace of its passing.