A sadhai once told me, life is chaos. Days wane, strength ebbs, life smolders in testament to chaos. We can no more guide chaos as one could divine the will of Kendan. We survive because we must. We kill because we must. And when we do love, it is of necessity. Life is the discord of men loving men, men hating men, men obliterating men, while wives cheer our atavistic scramble for the sake of progeny, and babes wail for our strengths to flare and take dominion.
Such a grim and heretical assessment that even I, a man scarified, am loath to agree. But feelings are whimsical, voluble sentiments, high with the bloom of the saya flowers, low depending the bluntness of winter’s bite— like chaos itself. As such, I can give no verdict. I only offer a tale. Whether it be a testimony to chaos or the divine will of Kendan, I leave you to decide.
We must begin twenty years back when I was a boy, still green, my face un-rough, my ears still un-pierced to wear the teluhu. I lived amidst the terraced slopes of the Udai Mountains located in the southernmost part of the Ekio domain. The work chants thrilled the day, jackals lopped moon-eyed in the night, and the air was moistly rich with fetor from the paddies. But I was no farmer, no scion of the ifa caste. No, my Ogami would have upbraided me if I dared claim the ragged pride of an ifa.
I was … what was I? They called me Shunja. And so I was Shunja, an untouchable, a outcast of failed parentage, without the hope of gion. You ask how could I have lived without the sanli, without the ash-white tattoos that warded against the forty-seven ogin? How could I have slept blithely on my raffia mat when I had no hope for gion, no hope for entering into the grace of the Sister’s Three embrace? I lived well, thank you. I had Ogami.
Ogami. A father would have to be shamelessly hopeful indeed to name his child master, wouldn’t he? Whatever the proprieties of his name, Ogami was a man of imperial heft and stature. His gaze high and firm, he moved like the lord jaguar. His sanli—long chalk-white, inverted triangles running from eye to chin—branded to his face another dimension of fierceness.
Ogami fed me and clothed me. He taught me the way of the sword and the lance. He taught me how to read and write the ten thousand characters of Standard Hokima. Was it poetry, or painting, or calligraphy, or the eight-stringed waud, or the proper way to fold a letter to your ladylove? He showed me, he raised me, and I was truly indebted to him.
Our days were of harmony—peace was certainly shattered when Toba darted into our front compound. Kendan isowarei chawadan!—what an impression he made, this Toba sira Toba. Toba, son of Toba, son of Toba. That day, I remember, was a torrid and humid benison from the Sister’s Three.
I was cross-legged at the verandah, practicing characters on a sandbox when a whirlwind of yells swooshed in from the mountain path into our front yard. Imagine if you will, a black mushroom bounding in and out of bushes, stalking giddily and noisily after a bush rat.
Certainly the commotions were not conducive to study or to Ogami peacefully contemplating phoi inside the hut. Ogami shuffled out of the hut and stood outside the verandah. Slackening his fists at his sides, he relaxed into a stare of quiet bemusement over the zigzag of bravado and angry determination. Like the uncivilised ifa that he was, Toba wore nothing save for the fiendishly tied loincloth around his pelvis. Sweat rilled along the dabs of mud and angular tattoos that lined his ebony torso. His hair glided free and half-grey as he darted glances for that pernickety bush rat. I thought it rather irksome to see the twisted cloth in between his buttocks. Ogami would never let me play about bare-bottomed in the sun. Nevertheless, I ran cool in wonder over this anomalous and mettlesome fascination.
What could be so interesting about a child chasing after rat? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it was the usual childish way in which the most ordinary of happenstances could capture your undivided attention. Maybe it was the astonishment in witnessing an agemate being so ordinarily alive, or rather being tritely human. My childish impressions were not linear or one-to-one maps between the world as it is and the world in my mind. My sights were deformed and distorted; people sheared and graded into the forms of otherness, none the least Toba shouting at the little demon that teased and taunted his toes.
“Get in here!” Toba cried.
The rat scampered across island clumps of sun-baked mud and round Ogami’s sandaled feet. Without warning, he swooped down and caught it deftly by its neck. Toba squealed in response, his black face plumped like a bloated tomato, but Ogami, unmoved, raised it high out of reach of Toba’s scrabbling hands. There he was, a master over the boy’s accelerating desperation.
“Padami Chawadan,” Ogami cried as the rat limped its sad head.
Again, Toba swiped for the furry thing. “Padami what?”
“Pups don’t need to know what that means.”
I did not know what his favorite phrase meant either despite repeated questions.
“That was my mine,” Toba boomed like Kendan against Ogami’s lissome physique
“Yes yours. I’m nothing, just a toothless hag that you yell at.” Ogami dangled the rat’s tail over Toba’s pug nose. Toba jumped and pounced to grab it, but Ogami was ever sly. “Come on, take it,” Ogami mocked.
No one took things from Ogami, not even the black mushroom darting arms uselessly at him. Sometimes I think Ogami had never known what it meant to be the common man with an unremarkable soul. At his birth, the sadhai must had divined the water bowls and prophesied Ogami to be Kendan’s own. And even here as he slipped the rat in and out of Toba’s grubby hands, he was indeed a master among men.
But there is only so much excitement to be enjoyed when your opponent is inept and flustered. The rat was tossed away into the darkness of the bushes, and soon enough Ogami bent Toba over his thigh. I gritted my teeth at the black hirsute hand high over Toba’s behind. But only three smacks? A sharp twist of his little neck was probably more than sufficient.
Wildly swinging arms, the boy tramped over the sprinkled flowers, yelling with all the pride afforded by tears, “Don’t you hide anywhere. Tomorrow, my father will come and beat you up.” And Toba flounced out into the shadow-dappled forest path.
With last of the Toba’s panting and sniffling, I looked to Ogami, helplessly puzzled over how he would deal with a family affair of ire. But … Ogami’s red-brown gums peeked from the chapped lips. A crescent of stained teeth appeared. Ogami was smiling. My writing stick slid out of my hand and tinkled over the sandbox. Ogami was smiling.
He made his way back to the verandah, hardly stopping to make eye contact before retiring into the hut. That night, as I lay next to Ogami in the inner chamber, my heart was a pitter-patter. Ogami, on the other hand, was in a stately repose, bearing nothing of the shining warmth of the early afternoon. But my fingers tingled over my chest, my forehead was freshly damp. I had to meet Toba again. I had to have him make Ogami smile again. However, the task of camaraderie was perhaps something not even Kendan could effect.
It was rapu to acknowledge me, to speak to me, and even look at me. My being was of tewai, disharmony, disorder, and one did not name or divide disharmony. That night perhaps the seeds of discontent and despondency were sown. Certainly I remember being warmly giddy, and yet ineffably cowered for the first time in my sentient existence.
Gratefully, venturing into the village and challenging strictures just to find Toba was not necessary. A few days later, I was practicing sword strokes against a dummy when the boy, and the hulk of his father came stamping into the front yard. Father and son were likewise clothed in sleeveless robes that barely covered their muddy thighs. His father’s grey long braid crowned his head in the manner of an ifa married man, while his son’s hair tousled wildly black and grey over his narrow eyes. The father looked subdued, certainly not in the furious mood needed to defend his son, which perhaps was why Toba remained a few lagging steps behind him, looking angrily downcast.
Back on the raised deck of the verandah, Ogami had been standing by the teak wood stanchion. Father and son stood at least head shorter before Ogami. His head cocked over the beam, and his eyes were still. A cold shiver ran down my back. I stood aside by the dummy, my hands twisting on the slippery hilt of the sword.
The moment of silence splintered in the humid heat of the afternoon.
“Apologise,” his father said to Toba.
Toba scowled, and his face twisted a unreadable black sky of ill weather. He shifted stiffly, turned his hard eyes unto me. I shuddered and darted my eyes to the unlucky left. Then a loud thwack jolted. Toba’s eyes dimmed to tears. Frantically rubbing the sore spot on the back of his head, he stumbled to kowtow before Ogami and touched forehead to feet in apology.
I dared to look at the scene brazenly. It struck my ignorant ten-year-old self that there was something ill-thought, ill-omened about the black and grey hair flaring over Ogami’s feet. Toba did not look like a boy meant to bend and be the slavish dutiful ifa he should be. In a way, Toba could be like Ogami, a master among men.
His father tented his hands underneath his chin, and slight smile graced his face. “Forgive my son. His mother spoils him to no end.” He waited a conciliatory moment. “If you will, I’d offer him to help—“ With a random turn of the head, he caught my glance. There was a half shiver, half stance to keep tall and composed. But the shock was too much for the stocky man as he touched nose, brow, sky, nose, brow, sky, to ward away evil. “I’ll make sure Toba won’t cause you trouble anymore, Sio.” He nudged Toba’s back gently with his toe. “Toba, you’ll keep away from here. No more trouble from you.”
Ogami scratched his bony stomach in a bored fashion then bent over to raise Toba up. “Please stand up. Don’t mind me. I’m just an old man.” A phlegmy laugh, a round of smiles. “He’s a lusty boy, like Kendan himself.”
Toba straightened upright, but his look was in no way softened. This had his father grunting him to good behavior and Ogami laughing more expansively.
Again the laugh, the toothy smile. I tried to keep my attentions on the dummy so as not to gawk at Ogami patting Toba’s head. The gesture seemed unwelcome with the way Toba’s brows sank lower on each pat. Was it that terrible? I could not know. He had never patted my head before.
“He’s a lusty boy, like Kendan himself,” Ogami said.
Girls had a choice among the Sisters’ Three for role models. Kadmi was wisdom, Padmi was submission, Nadmi was grace. The boys had only one: Kendan. His steps shook our island of Hokima; his lust for the Sisters’ Three caused the land to bleed heat and blood. Toba could be like Kendan, but I could only remain of the tewai, of disharmony and disorder.
I forced my attentions onto the dummy again and prepared my sword stance. To the head. Slash to the throat. Stab at the belly. Cut through the thigh. To the head. To the head.
“I want to learn to do that, I want a sword like his.” Toba demanded as his father pulled him away by the ears.
“You’ll keep quiet.” He said, “You tend to life and keep the Sisters’ tapestry of rice and life. You’re an ifa, not an accursed beast without hope of entering the Sisters’ embrace.” And they were gone again down the mountain path.
Ogami stopped over me; liver-spotted eyelids drooped upon my trembling hands. Affection looked as perplexing to him as the lines engraving my palms. He had told me that he was wandering in a field irritating with the puling of abandoned girls when he found me, the lone male, dumb to the sun and a wolf’s approach. Whatever woe that led to my abandonment, perhaps it was afflicting him too.
His half-closed stare had none to intimate of this woe. Asking him seemed like ingratitude. With the shake of head, he turned away and made his lumbering way past the clearing for the canopy of heavy branches. As I watched his back, slightly hunched, dissolve into the yellow light, I wondered dispiritingly if I would ever see Ogami smile again.
Move onto Chapter 2