See the beginning here.
The next morning, I awoke alone. Ogami should have been at a corner of the room, cradling a sheathed sword to himself, rocking to an unsung rhythm of dispossession. Sometimes, he would be set the sword on a miniature altar, and bow before it like one would do before the black idols of the Sister’s Three. The one time I imitated him, he pulled me off sharply and demanded what meaning the sword had for me. Words and thoughts frothed in my throat as I had thought it would be obvious that since the sword held a meaning for him, then it held a meaning for me.
Here I was alone before the sword on the altar, and the light planing through the door, and the all too disorderly sense of the quiet around. I darted to my feet with a mind to examine the lacquer finish on its sheath, especially the inlay of five flowerets circumscribed within pearly circles. The sword was a sacred thing to Ogami—I rushed out of the room—I, of the tewai, had no right to touch or to pollute it.
Ogami was not in the common room where he would be carving temple dolls. I shambled barefoot to the verandah. The morning felt tempestuous with the fast and furious twittering of birds, but Ogami was nowhere in sight in the front compound. Sometimes, I would find him stilled over the red fan of flowers drooping from the flame of the forest tree.
Maybe he had left?
Of course not! How cowardly. You had to recognize weakness and insecurity in your self, see what it is and beat it into submission. Practicing a thousand sword strokes was perfect to that aim.
I began with my wooden sword. One … two … three … in due time, with my perfection, would come Ogami’s smile. 123 … 124 … 125 … as Ogami would demand, every stroke had to be composed, full of spirit, just as powerful and effective as the first, or I had to start again. My spirit must be unyielding and yet able to soothe a baby’s cry. Such level of control, I think as a adult, impossible. But as a child then, I thought Ogami mastered it, and therefore I could achieve it. I only needed to dig deep find that ore of reserve and control. How wrong I was.
778 … 779… 780 …. My legs were trembling violently, and my breaths etched in the back of my throat … 800…801…802… In due time when I was worthy enough, Ogami would bequeath me his precious sword. I could not lose heart or wax loose to mediocrity … 997…998… 1000.
Kendan isowarei Chawadan! I crashed onto the hard ochre ground in a splat, the bamboo sword clanging away from my feet. My chest was burning, and my stomach felt vacuous. And the sure sky and silent sun, Kendan had pushed the sky up from the earth and fought the ocean mistress for her sun earring. He was strong indeed. How could anyone hope to be like him? Certainly, not me with my pathetic hands trembling uselessly and my lungs that would not stop burning in exhaustion. And Toba wanted to learn how to use this sword—ha! He would not last long against Ogami’s strict training.
I pulled myself upright and remembered Ogami laughing over Toba, his placidity against Toba’s roughness. What was it about Toba that could prompt Ogami to glide with ease and warmth? I thought I might as well find Toba in the village and ask him myself. There was no reason to sit alone and wonder what Toba was and was not.
But first, I ate a small breakfast of barley gruel, did a short musical practice on the wud, practiced fifty characters of Standard Hokima before I could go gallivanting to the village. To prepare for the trip, I needed to get control of my expansive clothes. While the ifa disported in various states of undress in the summer heat, I struggled with billowing robes, voluminous sleeves, overflowing divided skirts, the itchy thick hempen fabric. I had to bind a sash around my legs and then around waist and chest and then around my arms to control the fabric. And this had to be done in a proper ceremonial fashion. Too many times, I would slip with a sash that Ogami had to angrily take over its tying. For now, it was only me and my small hands, and devilish loops and knots. Toba would never agree to all these clothes. Perhaps I should protest and demand Ogami allow me the ifa inelegant liberties of their short loin clothes. I was a shunja after all, not a hekare.
Before venturing down the mountain path, I veiled my unmarked face, for I could not dare impose my disorder into an innocent’s view. Light fell through the grille of leaves and branches hedging the path. The path declined in a predictable grade then steepened abruptly and curved towards the eastern view of the sky. The view opened to the huts and the wall designs of red, black and white. Women would mix clay and buffalo dung and fashion geometrical stripes on the walls. The effect had the same warding effect of the curlicues and glyphs of the sanli. I myself felt dizzy, gazing on these wall patterns. Maybe it was true that I was a demon spawn if I felt this disoriented.
The sun was high in the sky. The temple gongs struck, marking the hour of Jade. The air rippled with overtones, and sound resounded through the hull of the valley, up the green terraces and over the house thatches, around the eaves of the Great Temple. Women, with grey braids crowning their heads, were stooped in the fields, planting rice seedlings before the rains would drench the land into paddies.
And far off where the road led to the Grand Temple, I recognized the sleek black profile of Ezo, his baldhead gleaming. Even the team of buffalo stopped for his upper caste warrior eminence as he walked freely with a bamboo scroll held up in his face. We could be kindred souls. Bound with a love for learning and martial arts, we could be bosom friends. But that would not be of the good way, of how Kendan would will things, for he was embalmed with pride of a fatriyad warrior caste sworn to defend the Ekio clan—and the shame of a rakki, a disgraced fatriyad. Ifa, shunja, we were all beneath him, even if his baldhead bared to all the fallen status of his family. Pride and shame were his constant companions, and the book held up to his face like an iron curtain.
Wistfully, I veered towards a wide entrance leading to a copse of trees arranged in a semi-circle. The last time I came here, a pack of snarling dogs chased after me. But amidst the energy of boys running around a banyan tree, girls crouched in between the heavy thighs of harridans, no one took note of my little presence—I supposed the Goddess Nadmi herself had blessed my excursion.
I was a stone’s throw away from a group of boys looking up at something in a tree. Their half-grey braids were loose over their bare shoulders. Though dirty and dusty, they all had gion. They all had faces streaked and dotted with the ash-white sanli.
“Toba, throw me a mango,” one of them demanded.
I could only make the shins and feet amongst the long leaves rippling and drooping from the branches. The boys yipped for Toba to pluck that mango, not this mango.
“Toba, throw me a mango too,” a girl said. Around her small waist was a belt of small cages containing things I could not quite make out. Her hair was all but grey and she had a cleft lip. It looked like a lacerated caterpillar was stuck above her lips. Her eyes were overhead to the tree, my eyes were on her nose.
“Ayni, you climb up here and get yourself a mango,” Toba growled. “You know how hard it is be up here.”
“But you gave Khura mangoes,” she whined. “Ten of them.”
“She wanted five mangoes for one of her milk balls.”
“You do everything she wants. Five mangoes for one milk ball. How’s that fair?” Her lips worked in consternation. She slowly turned her face towards me, then her eyes narrowed. The rib-like sanli tightened over her ebony cheeks. I palled. I was more than willing to climb up and get her a mango if she would stop looking at me.
On other days, I would have stood in the shadows and watched their rambunctious ministrations from a far, but today should be different … maybe not. What was I going to tell Toba anyway? Give me a mango too? But mangoes were the body form of the goddess Padmi, so I could not eat them. And I could very well not impugn my Shunja self on his person.
Shadows seemed to seep from the weaves of mango leaves and smear and stretch out from the crown of the tree top. Perhaps I was getting dizzy. Water, perhaps water would be best, but the tree … something like a storm cloud layered just over the bulbous treetop. I blinked. The cloud still drizzled over leaves, black, grey, forms that seemed to imprint the fabric of space. I stood mesmerized at the silhouette while everyone else yapped at Toba to his bidding, and Ayni was sliding from patient irritation to a petulant whine. But most worryingly, the amorphous cloud slunk down the edges of the treetop and weaved in and about the heads and torsos. Half-shifting shadows glided over the red ground, glittered in various shades of grey, incomprehensibly balled up to an entity blacker and more solid in front of my person. A face? No face, but malformed indentations of grey, something fibrous could be a hand. It was as if something existed between the real and unreal, between body and spirit.
My blood quivered in my veins. Beats pumped out to panic. Flee or stand tall, as Ogami would have me be before this pestilent incorporeal presence? The field of my vision collapsed onto this being, and the sense of déjà vu swarmed by the moment. Maybe this was another part of me, the damned part of my being, looking back at me, and demanding I acknowledge it. This was of the tewai, and I was of the tewai, and so we must be one in perdition.
Reader, the truth of the apparition was much simpler as you shall see later. For now, my small legs were wilting wobbly, and I found myself backing away from the odious apparition.
“Kesse, out of my way!”
All became white and stark, as I had backed up against somebody. I turned around sharply, my veil unraveling off my face. Kendan’s mercy! It was Ezo, lips curled raggedly and his eyes tightening. Kendan’s mercy! I had touched him and defiled his high person. His snarl twisted more fiercesomely, and there the shine of his fatriyad dagger on his waist. All sense of decorum vacated my soul as I fell down prostrate before him.
“Forgive me, forgive me,” I mumbled.
He kicked my head, one, two, three …. “A shunja shit head touched me! I should kill you for this.”
He should. Even though he was thirteen, he had the right to cut down an inferior in the open streets.
My breaths raced, and I could feel the ground heating up under my nose. How much mercy should I expect for my sin? But Ogami had told me never to depend on a man’s mercy. You had to act first, take the initiative and if you could not, force your way to the upper hand even if it meant becoming a man without gion. How then now, when I had clearly transgressed his honor?
“Oi Rakki! You’re the one who keeps walking around with a scroll like an idiot,” Toba shouted from afar. “I tell you one day, you’re going to fall into a ditch.”
“Kesse, mind your business and go shovel shit in the fields,” Ezo barked then kicked my head once more to make his point.
“You kick him again. I’m coming down from the tree and kicking your behind too.”
“Kesse, if you touch me, I’ll cut you down.”
Toba gave a wild laugh. “With your puny knife? Where’s your sword, Rakki?”
Kendan save us! Being a rakki, a disgraced fatriyad, Ezo could not carry a sword like it was the right of the warrior caste. I wished Toba had not said that as I could feel the furious wind from Ezo darting past me and blustering for the mango tree. It would be most evil if thing spiraled out of hand. I picked myself up from the ground and rushed to Ezo’s side. I managed to get a hold his long sleeves and pulled him back strongly.
“Kesse,” Ezo bellowed, spinning into my face.
“Demei, it was I who dishonored you.” I did not look away to the unlucky left as I should have. I stared into the fibrils blood feeding into his pupils and waited for his good judgment.
He bared his teeth, tossed his gaze away to the green horizon, muttering, “Why am I dirtying myself with shit-shoveling rabble?” He shoved me off, opened his scroll over his face and walked away.
I took a moment to enjoy the feeling of the sure ground under my feet. Then I came to children peering their tattooed faces at my now revealed shame. Kadmi deliver me! It took a few moments for them to feel the reprobation of my presence.
“It’s a—” a boy’s eyes bulged. “Shunja!”
They scattered away, leaving me to wilt before Toba up in the tree. I was afraid for a moment that Toba himself might fall down in fright.
I hurriedly tied the shawl around my face. “I thank you greatly for your assistance, demei—”
“I remember you. You’re with Old Tree!” Toba said. “
“Old Tree, demei?”
“Why do you talk like a sadhai stuck in a privy? What’s with me demei? The rakki’s the demei, a stupid one too.”
Well, everyone was a demei to me because everyone was above me. I supposed that would be hard to explain to an ifa with gion. I avoided his searching his brown eyes as I tried to think of a more elegant way to take my leave.
Toba sighed angrily. “The Old Tree took my bush rat.”
The name Old Tree was most distressing to my pure ears. “Please, refrain from calling him such a discourteous name. He is my Ogami—”
“I don’t get it. You can play swords, but you let the rakki walk over you.”
Toba was indeed dull, but it would be disharmonious to tell him so.
“Was the sword just for show?” Toba demanded.
I looked at his face, the long grey silver of his hair falling in with the translucent leaves. “I know all my stances, demei.”
The branches shook. “Don’t call me that.”
“Forgive me, Demei—”
“If you’re going to call me that, ask your Ogami if he can teach me the stances too.”
“Ifa tend to life. That would be disharmony.”
“Bah!” The branches susurrated as Toba slid from a main branch to the central trunk. “How do you know that anyway? People keep saying this and that is disharmony.”
“I read it in the Tratsa.”
“You can read?”
“Yes? You can’t?”
“Sadhais are the only people I know who read. And there’s the block head rakki…”
I did not like when he insulted the high person of the fatriyad either. I wondered if insolence was usual to the ifa. Perhaps this was related to their lack of education.
I said finally. “Maybe not a sword, but my Ogami can show you how to use a staff.”
“What good is that? I want a sword like the one Kendan used to defeat the five-headed elephant … Tell him I’ll give him mangoes in exchange for lessons …. Catch!” came the voice overhead.
Green orbs fells from the tree, and I twisted side to side to catch them all. The mangoes were just soft enough to yield under pressure. How exactly was I to explain elegantly to Ogami Toba’s inelegant request?
“Toba!” Ayni screamed, struggling with the bind of a loincloth around her chest, and tramping over to us. “Shunjas aren’t supposed to eat mangoes.”
That was most certainly true.
“I’m telling your Oppa, that you’re talking to a Shunja.”
Toba’s small black feet jutted out the branches. “Do what you want. You’re not getting any of my mangoes anyway.”
Her auburn eyes narrowed at me, and moments turned irately. With a huff, she tramped away, her bare feet kicking up the loamy soil. I felt sorry more than slighted. She made across a lawn littered with strutting birds and disappeared behind a red-black spiraled door.
Toba thumped out of the tree, a raffia bag slung around his chest. “Don’t mind her.”
Well then, I did not like the development. The prospect of facing his father, making Ayni displeased was most disharmonious. This excursion was clearly an ill-thought idea straight from the tewai itself.
I looked over the forbidden mangoes in my hands and hoped Ogami would eat them. It would be a terrible thing to waste them. “Forgive my unpleasant intrusion. I must return to my Ogami.”
Toba held back my shoulder. I shuddered. He really should not be touching me.
He stood in front of me, smiling like he was commander of something. Of what or whom, I did not know.
“Talk to your Ogami, will you?”
“I shall—” But I descried Ayni behind him zooming onto with … a black furry thing in her left hand. My eyes flew wide. I pulled Toba to my side away from her onslaught. Mangoes tumbled onto the ground, and then I saw that the black object was an enormous spider with snapping menacing chelicera.
“GO AWAY,” Toba yelled.
“Give me some mangoes,” she said.
“Take the mangoes from the ground.” Toba swished around me to get away from her fanged hands.
“The shunja touched it. Get me another from the tree.” Ayni darted the giant spider for Toba’s arm, but he swung around me again to evade. I tottered from side to side to every scream of Toba.
“Take the mangoes from the ground!” Toba shouted right by my ringing ears.
As she tried for Toba’s face to the side of my cheek, her black spider blotted out my view with its squamous thorax. And my patience whooshed away to the whimsies of the ugly heat. I, before the appendages could touch my forehead, dove for her small wrist, spun her away from me. Before I would pop the elbow and dislocate her shoulder, she cried high and terrible,“Ow!” Her cry fell deaf on my ears as I grabbed the spider and smashed it to the ground.
All was still again for an instant. We looked at each other, uncomprehending the vicissitude of the moment. Toba stepped out from me and stared at the black hair splat on the ground. Her nose wrinkled uncontrollably and her eyes roved madly at the spider legs twitching slowly to stillness.
“You killed Cudi.” She exploded to tears. “I took care of Cudi for three months and you killed my Cudi—Waaaaaaah!”
Kendan save me. The death of the spider was rather unfortunate. Ogami would declaim my lack of self-control. One does not kill indiscriminately. I could only mumble repeatedly. “Forgive me, Tomei-Demei.”
A matron, grey crown, muddy brown loincloth, stopped by, took a good look at me, and commenced a frantic warding, nose, brow, sky, nose, brow, sky. Ayni explained. She cried so more. I gulped, paralyzed without hope. Her wails beckoned all to come and see what the Shunja had done. They, adults, wagged at me, they pulled Toba away from me, they poked their staffs at me.
“The tewai take you!” A crone pelted holy rice at my face.
“Who owns it anyway? It should be bound and gagged,” a man asked
“In my day, they made all shunjas commit the good way,” another said.
The good way, the way of reclaimed gion and blessed eternal rest. Sun and sky were blinkering in and out of view. Around me, faces, crooked teeth, misshapen eyes, were swelling larger and blacker, blotted out the blue and white of sky. I could feel the weight of anger bearing hot and heavy over my face. I stepped back, but staffs nudged me back to the center. And then their voices grew harder and harsher down my ears, “Who owns it? Why was it still alive? What brought disharmony to their threshold? Who, what, why?”
Reader, there are questions one should not deign to ask. Some questions will lead you to the crevasse of ruin, to the precipice of madness, to the island of dullness. If Kendan has deemed it unknowable, why risk asking and asking? That is of pride and disorder.
But there I was, before esteemed superiors, facing questions I had no facility to answer, my lips trembling, my eyes dimming. In that moment in my ten-year-old self, the seedling of an urge sprouted, the urge to slit Ogami’s throat.
Ok readers. I have been worried about this for a while because I worry the opening chapters are too slow. But I’m not quite sure how to condensce all the nuisances before layering out the action. Well, read on tell me if it works.