By Gabrielle Swartzentruber
The spears pierced the sky like a thousand deadly sewing needles stitching the fabric of war. The thundering of the cannons shook the ground and matched the thunder that was crashing overhead, creating a cacophony in the barren valley where the two forces were colliding. Kato Kiyotaka stiffened as the shogun ordered another volley of spears and tightened his grip on his own katanas. A gentler thunder emanated from behind Kato as he turned to see his Master Adachi approaching on his midnight stallion.
“Rest easy, my son,” Master Adachi said, “the Ayans have proven themselves worthy adversaries. Today, we shall be immortalized. For now, take Mikito and ride with me to the mountain pass. We have been ordered to flush out the remaining Ayans and to bring them into our cannon’s range.”
“Yes, Master,” Kato responded and looked to his left at Mikito, whose resolute expression matched Kato’s own. The only sign of Kato’s nervousness was manifested in the slight shaking of his hands as he and Mikito both mounted their steeds to follow Master Adachi. The valley was littered with bloodied limbs and various bits and pieces of armor. Kato scrunched his nose at the metallic smell of rain mixing with blood. He coughed and wiped at his eyes that were stinging at the smoke the cannons were generating. Beyond the valley was a steep, rocky hill that melted into the mountains overlooking the valley. The ba-dump, ba-dump of the horses’ hooves filled Kato’s ears and seemed more deafening than the shouts and roaring of war. They rode swiftly until they came to a narrow edge of the mountain with Master Adachi leading the way, Mikito close behind him and Kato bringing up the rear. The horses were about halfway across the ledge when Mikito’s horse, spooked by the precarious ledge overlooking the dizzying view, reared and released a protesting cry that seemed to reverberate for miles. Master Adachi whipped around and pressed a finger to his lips in a command for silence, but it was too late; the Ayans must surely know their position by now. A feeling of dread passed through Kato as he listened for the tell-tale booms of cannons being fired. Master Adachi had heard the Ayans’ cannons before Kato did.
“Take cover!” the old master exclaimed.
A cannonball struck the side of the mountain right above where Mikito and Kato were positioned. Kato dove skillfully off of his horse and evaded most of the rubble that was misplaced by the cannonball. Mikito, however, was not so fortunate. A large rock had crashed into Mikito’s head, knocking him unconscious, while his horse careened over the edge of the cliff and fell to its death. Kato scowled. This was a cowardly attack; if the Ayans had any honor, they would fight hand-to-hand instead of hiding in rocky crevasses.
“Kato!” Master Adachi called over the din. “Lead them to our forces!”
“But Master…” Kato fell silent as his master gave him a piercing look more terrifying than the threat of the cannons. His own horse having galloped away, Kato started his trek back down to the valley. Suddenly, a scream burst from behind Kato and turned his blood to ice.
“Master!” Kato shouted as he dashed back to where his master now lay, a spear lodged in his chest. Kato blanched at the sight and time seemed to stop. In that fleeting yet eternal moment, his entire way of life seemed to evaporate like cool spring rain striking hot coals. Sensing Kato’s reaction, Master Adachi looked upon Kato not with fear, nor anger, nor even serenity; just a deep, aching sadness.
“I’m so sorry, my son.”
Kato knew his master was not apologizing for perishing in battle, for every samurai would consider it an honor to die a valiant death. It’s my fate that he mourns. His thoughts were then interrupted by the clanking of armor and the shouts of men.
“Up here!” Kato recognized the voice of his military commander. “Traitor!” the commander shouted, his face twisted with rage.
Kato’s icy blood now turned to magma. “How dare you insult me! If you weren’t my commanding officer, you would meet your fate by my sword, just as so many of the Ayans have!
The commander smirked. “You would have killed me like you did your master and then killed the rest of us so that there would be no witnesses?”
Kato glanced at Mikito’s inert form decorated with a red ribbon of blood on his forehead and then at his master with the arrow still stuck in his chest. “No,” Kato whispered hoarsely, “no I would never -”
“It’s no use defending whatever honor you believe you still have.” The commander nodded to his men. “Take him.”
Kato dropped his shoulders. Any action he decided to take would result in a dishonorable death. A soldier stepped forward and smacked Kato with the broad edge of his sword and the next thing Kato knew was darkness.
Kato awoke with the worst headache he’d ever had. Slowly returning to reality, he was dimly aware that he was stripped of his weapons and armor, now only sporting a simple robe. His head banged repeatedly against the back of the soldier who was sitting in front of him and steering the horse that Kato had been apparently thrown onto. Additionally, Kato’s wrists and ankles were laden with heavy chains that clanked with each gallop. Even in his groggy state, Kato knew where they were going. After all, there was only one hall of justice in the entire village. Kato raised his pounding head and saw people lining the streets with expressions of incredulity and disgust etched onto their faces. Kato cared not for the vulgar opinions of simple townspeople and held his head higher until he saw his wife Kana in the crowd. The look of utter disappointment in her eyes was far worse than any punishment the hall of justice could hand him. She fell to her knees and lamented,
“O warrior brave with whom I wed,
Disgraced himself and shall soon be dead!”
Kato cringed, unable to bear the horrible truth. Japanese tradition clearly dictated that if a samurai died, his wife’s death would also be required. Forgive me, my love. By bearing the blame of my master’s death I am now responsible for your death as well as my own. The soldier sitting in front of Kato halted the horse, dismounted, and slammed Kato to the ground, interrupting his thoughts of his wife’s demise. The soldier marched Kato up the wide path leading to the hall of justice. The hall was a squat building with a slanted roof and was guarded with bamboo gates. Kato and the soldier passed through the gates and into a large room with tall windows in both walls leading to a single pulpit with benches on either side of it at the end of the room. Since this was a war trial, none other than Kato’s own commanding officer was acting as judge. Kato sneered. Everyone here knew this was less of a trial and more of a ceremony, as the outcome was certain and swift. When everyone had filed in, Kato’s commander and judge stood and motioned for everyone else to do the same.
“Kato, clan of Kiyotaka, for your blatant and dishonorable acts against your fellow officers, the code of the samurai, and Japan herself, you are sentenced to perform seppuku at sunrise. Do you have any statements that would allow you to leave this place with honor?”
Kato set his jaw and locked eyes with his commander. Seppuku was a ritual suicide that a samurai would perform if his master died or if the samurai had fallen out of favor with his master. Both cases applied to Kato, albeit wrongfully. He would be allowed to spend one last night with his wife, then he would be taken to the temple in the mountains, not far from where Master Adachi was slain. Ironic that his blood would be spilled there too, this time rightfully by his own hand.
“Not any that you would understand,” Kato muttered in response to his commander’s inquiry, realizing the futility of arguing for his innocence when no one else had seen what truly happened to Master Adachi.
“The witnesses and I have heard your statement and now dismiss you to your sentence,” the commander boomed, his voice lingering slightly on that last word. The soldiers present at the trial escorted Kato out of the hall and to his own home. Two soldiers would be posted outside his door all night, not only serving as an ominous threat to Kato and his wife, but also as a reminder to the people outside that shame had descended upon their home.
When Kato stepped into his house for the last time, Kana was waiting with their last supper already prepared and had stoked a cheery fire in the hearth. Although Kato knew in his heart he had done nothing wrong, it didn’t make it any easier to look into Kana’s eyes from across the table. Kana allowed Kato to start eating and collect his thoughts before she began to speak.
“What really happened?” she inquired in hushed tones.
Kato smiled tightly. It was a slight comfort that the one who knew him best also knew that his honor was intact. He only regretted the fact that no one else believed the same way. “The Ayans had ambushed us in the mountains; they knocked out Mikito and killed Master Adachi,” Kato replied.
Kana nodded, recognizing that even if someone saw what had truly happened, Master Adachi was dead nonetheless and that Kato would have to die. Whether he himself murdered Master Adachi or was incompetent enough to allow his teacher to die right next to him, it mattered not. Finished with her meal, Kana stood and walked over to Kato and stroked his long hair.
“I made a vow to live with you; now, I will die with you.”
Kato took her hands in his own and gazed at his wife. Her dark hair was pulled loosely into a topknot and contrasted starkly with her ivory skin. The shadows of her face shifted and changed with the fire’s playful dance, alternately casting her delicate features into light and shadow. Her mouth was set in a firm line, but her eyes showed the slightest apprehension that undermined her earlier bold statement. Kato rose from his chair and reached to caress her flawless face.
“I would have no greater privilege than to have such a woman die by my side.”
Judging by the relief and pride that banished the apprehension from his wife’s eyes, Kato knew his words had struck home, and only wished that he would be as willing to die as she was. Unsettled, Kato led Kana away from the fireplace to their sleeping chambers to spend one last night together.
All too soon there were banging and shouts at the door announcing that execution day had arrived. Kato arose promptly, threw a robe over his head, and started for the door with Kana trailing behind. As the soldiers secured chains around Kato’s wrists and ankles once more, Kato stole one last look at his wife. She stood at the threshold of the doorway dressed in a lily-white kimono, her posture impeccable as she bowed to each of the soldiers. As the soldiers finished their task and began to lead Kato away, he felt a sudden sharp pang in his chest at the thought that Kana was carrying her wakizashi sword in her sleeve and by that afternoon, her white kimono would be stained forever. I gave her that sword as a wedding gift; will my shame ever cease?
The journey to the temple was not far, as Kato’s village was nestled at the base of the mountains. The climb lasted for only a couple of hours before Kato and the soldiers reached their destination. By this time, Kato’s wrists and ankles were covered in blisters and his limbs were sore from bearing the chains. My final act of humiliation before I die. The temple boasted three slanted roofs stacked on top of each other, separated by ebony pillars that marked each level of the temple. The sky was only a shade above black, bathing the temple in an eerie blue light. The mountains formed a semi-circle behind the temple, as if conferring with one another and passing their own judgement onto Kato. The soldiers led Kato to the entrance and stationed themselves on either side of the opening. Kato hesitated for a moment, then walked inside, feeling the frigid stone eat through his boots. The high ceiling converged into an arch above Kato and on either side of him were obsidian pillars with various creatures of mythology carved into them. The only light in the temple originated from small windows set high in the walls. Kato could just make out an altar on a raised dais in the center of the room with two silhouettes on either side of the altar. The temple was utterly silent save for the soft clicking of Kato’s boots against the floor and the crying of distant crows, the only music accompanying Kato’s death march. Kato reached the center of the room, turned his back to the altar and sat on his knees with his toes touching the floor, allowing his body weight to rest on his heels. One of the figures moved out from behind the altar, as quiet and incorporeal as a shadow, and handed Kato the wakizashi sword with which he was supposed to kill himself. Kato looked up and saw none other than Mikito’s face. Since Mikito had been unconscious during Master Adachi’s death, he could not be held responsible for the incident, nor could he have served as a proper witness for Kato’s trial. A single tear escaped Mikito’s eyes and fell on the sword Kato was holding. The ripples the tear made on the sword imitated the ripples of time and suddenly Kato was five years old again in a much different ceremony.
The sun was shining brightly overhead that day, glinting off of the sword that Master Adachi was presenting to him. Kato’s very first wakizashi sword; he would no longer play in his father’s courtyard with a simple wooden toy and would now have a sword of his own like the real samurai. Master Adachi looked at Kato with a kindly expression.
“My son, you are charged with protecting and upholding the way of the samurai with strength, courage, righteousness, honor, and truth.”
Master Adachi’s distant words snapped Kato back to the present. Truth. Once held in such high esteem, now treated as an old relic, seen only in tales of heroes of old. Then, like the rays of the sun splashing over the mountains and pouring into the valleys, it dawned on Kato that performing suicide would be dishonorable, for it would be born out of lies and deception. Sweating profusely, his hair forming dark rivers flowing down his shoulders and back, Kato gripped the sword with trembling hands and focused his mind, steadying himself for what he was about to do.
Without warning, Kato exploded into action, jamming the wakizashi sword deep in Mikito’s thigh, evicting a howl of surprise and pain. Kato yanked the sword out of Mikito’s thigh and bolted out of the temple gates, not looking behind to see if either Mikito’s officers or the temple guards were pursuing him. Kato dashed down the mountain path, away from the temple, away from his village, away from it all. He ran until he was stumbling as much as he was running, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Not knowing how far he had come, or where he was at all for that matter, Kato looked around and realized that he had nearly reached the peak of one of the mountains. He was surprised to see an adolescent cherry blossom tree growing near the edge of the mountain path; Kato didn’t think that these trees could grow in the rocky mountain soil or this high above sea level. But growing it was. The little tree was blushing its cherry blossoms, weeping softly as the petals gently fluttered to the ground like rosy tears. Kato moved over to the tree and plucked one of the delicate petals. This tree and I share the same yamato spirit; the same wild, wandering temperament. Just as these petals linger on the branches for only a few sun cycles then wander for the rest of their days, leaving only a faint scent behind, so was my honor short-lived and now I am left to wander, leaving only a stain of shame. Kato released the petal he was holding up to the wind and looked up at the sun, which was only now beginning its ascent into the sky. That glorious ball of orange threaded its rays playfully into Kato’s hair. Perhaps this is not merely an end, but a beginning. A second chance, a renewal, just like the cherry blossoms and the rising sun. He closed his eyes and smiled. He would much rather spend the remainder of his days looking for redemption than looking for a fight.