Too Old for Old Tricks–Part One

Happy Easter

It was Easter Sunday. Whatever of life and death, sacrifice and the resurrection were subsumed by the festering jubilation in the grocery store. Buy one get one free rabbit-sized bonbons, seventy percent off honey-glazed ham. Perhaps one could prevision death and its runny afterbirth from the scarlet poinsettias gracing the gardening aisle.

The cold and the diarrheic glimmer of beer bottles billowed from the open-faced fridge before Yinka tightening his arms folded on his chest. His bangles felt icy against the scars on his wrists. Something itched, rather wriggled underneath the squamous scars. Ratcheting the cool metal over his wrists, Yinka regretted the short sleeves of his tshirt and the white hairs over his arms and the infinite choices for beer.

And oh yes, beer. Brown bottle, green bottle. Gold foil cap, slovenly monk with apricot cheeks. Yinka reached for the choice of the past seven years: the case of all-American swill refreshing crisp lager. Bruce preferred it and he preferred to prefer Bruce’s tastes. But he thought, Easter seemed an occasion for something different, something of spring, leastways a resurrection for better beer. And what perhaps of the all-Japanese swill or the all-Chinese swill—How now beer from the middle kingdom of el-cheapos?

And it was decided a case of the house favorite. Then he perambulated the aisles, like a whale that had lost sight of the sea and its obviating vastness, no more content, no less disinclined to feel disappointed in himself for defaulting to the familiar.

Perhaps a different brand of mustard? Bruce bought the mustard. Or the organic, natural, non-fluoride, non-sweetened toothpaste? But the regular one with ingredients of unpronounceables looked less frightening. The soft head brush toothbrush should be better than the medium head toothbrush? Bruce preferred the medium head, but wasn’t the soft head better?

The dental conundrums were no more clearer than the conundrum in his back pocket: a handwritten letter addressed to Bruce Cohn. The letter had arrived three days earlier but Yinka held onto it instead of placing it on Bruce’s study desk like he always did.

And in examining the letter again, feeling the ink strokes mark the white envelope, he decided its precise curlicues and the compact loftiness were of a feminine hand. This ‘Chris Winston’ on the sender’s address must be female, which ruffled him.

Why should Bruce, work-twenty-seven-hours-a-day Bruce, received handwritten letters in this age where sharing and caring were worth less than a byte? Unsurprising given Bruce’s lucky happenstances; still, Yinka held fast, in tremulous wondering, to his own letter addressed to Yinka Peter Olubayo. He would like a letter too. It was just as well Bruce would dismiss his want with a pathetic shrug; and therefore Bruce should not mind if the letter came from a bronzed ephebe lounging on a far-off Greek Island—warm sands and warm bodies. But Bruce would not mind; rather Bruce did not care to mind.

Unnerved, he stuffed the letter back into his pocket and slipped to deliberating between soft head toothbrushes and medium head toothbrushes. Analyses were still as muddy when the loudspeaker bleated the last chance for six inch round lemon chiffon cakes at seven ninety nine. Randomly he tilted his gaze over towards the row cakes on display and was immediately and quietly seized by the fact of the day being Bruce’s birthday. He dumped a pair of medium toothbrushes in his cart and trundled to the bakery section.

The assistant looked young, rudely and flippantly handsome as he played with his tongue in his mouth, rounding cheek to cheek in a careless rhythm. The boy reminded him of rich acorns and fluffy moss. Yinka wanted to reach over the glass display and pop those cheeks. Maybe jump over the display—no, bum knee, bum kidneys—and lay the boy’s face over where his cholesterol-clogged heart was. And he would whisper restfully about hog-tying bucks or practicing the loops of a hangman’s noose—no, none of that—Morse code for SOS or SOB.

Rubbing his wrists mindlessly, he mulled the delicate yellow lemon cake inside a glass shelf.

“Sir, you get an inscription on the cake,” the boy said as if celebration was wanting.

How good of you to call me sir. Yinka suppressed the flutter working up his face. Unearned familiarity was always discomfiting, formality comforting, even subtly arousing from the boy now eying him impatiently. Yinka, looking down, contemplated the crisp frosting flowers on the cake. An inscription might read, “Happy Birthday Bruce, love Yinka,”or rather, “Happy Birthday Emu, many more steaks to you, love Crocky?”

The choices felt dry, wasteful. Bruce’s father was a reformed Jew, his mother a reformed Jehovah’s witness. Birthdays, Easter, the cake being this sop to the crisis of spring, Bruce would not understand it or the pleasures of a handwritten letter.

The blare of the loudspeaker again announced the cheapest unbelievable Easter eggs, and Yinka’s senses whittled away in the disorder murmuring away to eggland. The cake sans inscriptions sounded better, or perhaps just the unfrosted cake, even better to leave off the cake and take home the empty box.

Yinka saw the boy’s fingers uncurl over the glass counter like it was surrendering to the Easter din around. A line of a shadow trailed up the short fingers and its hairs up to the arm and his folded sleeve, and to the face, evidently suffering a gaze on him. He must be new here. Yinka decided not to smile or soften; the boy braved to keep up his stare. His face could be more gentle, could be more innocently boyish. And pink grilled around the temples. The eyes, blue as the twilight, as those myriad eyes that flickered and watched him in his dreams like ghosts roused rudely from stupor.

Yinka hoped the boy was docile as his stance presupposed. He was too tired to fight or boast illustrious feats, much less conquer or claim.

His wrists troubled him again, causing him to fidget with the tight clasps of the bangles. There were inscriptions embossed over the dull metal; inscriptions held no meaning, drove no need in him. And yet casting them aside never occurred to him as possibility.

“Cool bangles,” the attendant interjected.

“You like them?” He regretted his too eager reply and quickly blurted, “Titanium. Made of titanium”

“Titanium? Get out of here.” The boy’s smile was the glitter of clear water. “Now, where does anyone get titanium?”

Yinka saw now the squareness of his hairline, and the mole underneath the brow. The boy could be … Francis, truly? The name had the ring of the faint clink of pebble ricocheting down a well. No face fastened to the name, or smell, or touch. But the name had the surety in his mind, and Yinka concluded it had to be this Francis who gifted him the bangles. But that could not be. Or was it Wilson, his physics Ph.D advisor, who was reprimanded professionally for gross sexual misconduct.

“Must have been someone important,” Yinka said noncommittally.

The boy looked more serious. “You want the cake?”

“Since you insist, I shall.”

“Hehe, doing my best to make more money for the Man,” the boy said. “You want an inscription?”

Yinka chuckled. “Sure. ‘Happy birthday Emu, love Crocky.’”

“Man…” The boy guffawed. “Your name’s really Crocky?”

Yinka looked back at the discolored incisor jutting out of the laughing mouth like misshapen stump. And the puns followed with more laughter and feelings warmed expansively.

“Crocky?” The boy repeated to himself, feeling the size and girth of the word. Then he removed the cake from the shelf and placed it on the counter. He raised sharp eyes to him. “Pink, all right for the inscription … Crocky?”

“Green … if you don’t mind.” Yinka’s voice rose a little. “And you don’t get to call me that.”

“Emu sure can.”

“He stuck around in spite of my balding head. You’d have to give me some of those napoleons for free before I might let you …”

“He —I should get this done.” Cake unsteady in both hands, the boy turned away to the table in the shadowy recesses beyond the light display.

Yinka was amused with how fast his eyes narrowed and his cheeks lost their high mien. But it was all right for dreams to last a moment. A flame that flickered for an instant was no less a flame, after all.

The wrists bothered him impolitely now. They felt as if a hot wire were boring down his wrist and piping up his forearm. Yinka examined the clasps of his bangles, the darker-colored scars underneath, the reticule of thickening veins. Something was clawing from beyond the grave of his youth where names were whispers and faces were chimeras ghosting the deep. Whatever was coming, he did not feel ready.

The boy returned without expression on his face and with the cake yellow, blue and green in a clear container.

“Enjoy,” he said, deadpan.

A tub of ice cream and dishwashing soap, completed the groceries. At the checkout counter, conversation plodded about the involuble weather, paper or plastic, cash or credit, if forty is the new twenty-five.

The cashier’s cheeks were thin and her eyes darkly deep. But there had to be something delightful in her because she smiled and chatted and smiled and chatted a lot. Even though she smelled of earthy mushrooms in the forest damp, Yinka could not help but think of her smiles like lipstick on a skull.

“Forty, wow, I have got five more years till then,” she chimed then defaulted to a careless laugh. “Age is all in the mind. My three-year-old son runs me around all day. I feel old and young at the same time. You get what I mean?”

Yinka nodded, fixed his gaze at the automatic doors, open, close, toddler in a tutu, open, close, man gnashing teeth, in search of coffee. And then the burble on anxieties he was the wrong sex to understand. And of course the son.

“Did I tell you, he put a frog in his mouth the other day.” She clutched her breast. “It scared the bejesus out of me. The last time it was a cricket.”

Yinka thought of the crying, the puling, the mewling of the wobbly things. Those wobbly things were supposed to his lottery ticket to meaning, to immortality. Beautiful things want to beget beautiful things. Good things want to beget good things in the transcriptions of DNA and RNA.

Her words floated on him, floated through him, floated away from him. He was rotating his wrists now to wish away the renascent discomfort.

“You have any?” she asked.

Yinka blinked. “Children? Happily … no.” He pasted a smile then took hold of the handles of the grocery bags. “Here’s to remaining thirty-five forever.”

“Thanks.” Her smile wilting on her lips, she dumped the pair of toothbrushes into the bag. “Wish Bruce happy birthday for me.”

“I shall.” Yinka sighed, moved to lift the bags away, but his wrists hiccupped in pain and the bags dropped with a light bang.

The cashier’s eyes narrowed. “You, Okay there? You need a carry-out?”

“ Thanks, no.” I’m forty-five, not ninety. He gritted his teeth as he jerked the bags off the counter in a show of his lusty strength. The pain was definite, like gears turning in the bones of his wrist. Useless hands. Useless body. Futility was on his mind as he glided from the store to pavement to his car. Inside the car, he refrained from starting the ignition, instead wriggling his fingers and clenching and loosening his fists, trying to feel the strings of pain each action effected. Its prickling sounds lulling him, the wind assaulted dust and pollen upon the windshield and flurried the dry leaves onto oil slicks. He looked at the sky maddeningly bright, maddeningly blue, and waited. For what? For how long? The pain called to pain, his worries called to Bruce.

Gently and precisely, he got his cellphone from his pocket. After a glance at its artic blue screen, he tossed the phone aside and wriggled the letter from his back pocket. It felt warm and damp. There was the graceful name again, ‘Chris Winston’.

Bruce always had truculently asserted his right to identify as bisexual. Yinka dismissed his view as droll; after all seven years of monogamy should decide it one way or another. Yes, but they had had seven year now of what exactly?

His pusillanimous thoughts so appalled him that he flung the letter into the grocery bags on the passenger seat and stuck the keys into the ignition.

“Damn it!” Gently again, he cradled his right hand to himself, but burls of discomfort grew wilder in his forearms and his hand flamed. He could see the red roots curled over his digits, stretched and spiraled over his biceps and clawed its pin tendrils up his wattle. In that great revelation of pain, he lifted his eyes to the eastern horizon. His mind, instantly, expanded, warped, sheared—a great tree darkening half the sky, its leaves of magnesium-blue flame, its fruits hanging like massive lanterns during a Chinese New Year. Today was Easter; rather it was spring, and therefore the season of its pollen celestial tide.

The pollen streamed from the east, covered all over rooftops and electric pole, passed through windows, open hands, open mouths—diamond dust, metaphysical dust enthralled his eyes and prickled his skin. But his hands, the inky roots were bulging and pulsating underneath his taut skin, and neural darts harpooning bursting myriad corpuscles in his brain. Light and its variegated hues bled down his vision, and his arms felt like postulating appendages, the air thick and dry in his nose. And lost in a shattering darkness inside his skull, he slumped onto the steering wheel. Then he remembered.

Francis was not Francis. Wilson was not Wilson. The bangle was simple iron, as old as himself.


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Mandate of Kendan, Chapter 2: Shunja, Shunja wherefore art thou called Shunja?

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When I think of the Ekio domain, I remember the late summer afternoons abuzz with wasps, the inviting pink of the sunset sky, the heat that ever promised one more day before abating. The moments rolled by in a scalding brightness, the phoenix-tail tree shimmered white, the wood planking of the verandah shone like a burnished mirror. Laziness perfumed the air, as it would be too hot for me practice martial arts. Poetry was the perfect play for the day. The height of harmony it was.

However, in the days following Toba’s fracas, harmony became uneasy, rather tenuous.  I tried to sit composed at the verandah as Ogami would have, but a flame of excitement lashed—I had to see Toba again.

Exhausted with thinking, I jumped up from my seat, but I quickly demurred in my excitement.  Thank Kendan, Ogami was not in sight to declaim my inelegant rising.  Right foot first then left foot in a collected elegant manner always.

Our hut was a simple two-room abode, full of light and the brown sheen of woven mats covering the floor. At his usual corner, Ogami sat on his heels, carving ritual dolls.  Dolls and banana leaves were scattered around him.  He preferred me reading to working; I preferred him relaxing to working. In my begrudging embarrassment at his cragged hands scraping on camphor wood, I slunk to the central fire pit.

“Would you like some phoi?” I asked him.

Old hands stilled, the spindle wood stopped bobbing as he raised his glassy eyes to me. His face held the mask of a dispassionate laborer. His moustache drooped over his chin like whiskers.  His hair, though thinning and grey, was bound up a fastidious knot high on his head.  If he were hekare or kuge, the knot only needed a jade or gold bangle to keep it in place.

Ogami’s lips pursed on one side then he returned to carving in a sort of reluctant air. “No. We’re running low.”

Yes, if only we were rich and thick like the hekare cupheads.  I remembered this time to sit composedly—left knee then right knee onto my heels.  Ogami demanded grace and refinement in all endeavors, endeavors that were invariably his impositions.  The elegance of a deadly sword stroke. The proper way to fold a letter to communicate intent.  The mellifluent calligraphy that would gloss my base character into a cultivated soul.

Ogami’s hands stopped moving, and I shuddered.  The silence was naked and billowing between us.

“When you have to drop off the dolls at the temple, may I follow you into the village?” I asked.

Ogami blinked at me dumbly. Yes, yes, a shunja following behind him might not be such a harmonious idea. I was not even allowed enter the temple.

“Toba and I can play with my sword together,” I said hopefully.

“Toba? Oh the boy with the bush rat.”

“Maybe you can teach us together how to use a sword,” I asked hopefully.

“Get the phoi,” Ogami said.

A foolish thing to ask.  Padmi instructed the ifa to preserve her tapestry of life in order to maintain their gion, not cut and deal death. Did that mean I learnt the ways of death precisely because I had no gion? The room blurred to black for a moment before I stirred to prepare the phoi, but then a shadow fell over the wall in front of me.

“Our own hekare in this palace of mosquitoes,” a high voice came from the door. It could only be Sadhai Lenpaki, a green-clad married monk of sect devoted to Padmi. I always thought his pot belly to be filled with centipedes and millipedes.  He must have come to trade our shards of souls for hekare dainties. An ivory ink brush? A book made of bamboo strips? A musical manuscript from the famed sadhais from the remote Cuole monastery?

Whatever his wants, they did not need my disharmonious presence. But was I to do? He was the door, I was stuck inside with my back to him. I stiffened.

“The shunja.” His voice faltered.  “Ogami-Soi, it’s the reason for the pain at your side.”  His voice rode to surety.

It makes adequate phoi.” Ogami’s eyes were cast low; a bored expression crossed his face.  “Shunja, get the hot water ready.”

His command was all I needed.  Careful not meet Lenpaki’s eyes, I prepared a fire and boiled a pot of water.

A frown etching his face, Lenpaki bent his tattooed baldhead over the door frame, arms crossed over the green chest. He was stuck. Either the holy man shared room with disharmony or remained outside.

There was a disconcerting laughter from the door. “I had to see you today. Good fortune. Kendan will come down from his mount in our time … we received a missive from the most holy chieftess.”

Ogami jumbled his dolls aside and shook his head in a reclamation of some incongruity.  “You mean the same Nicolenka Atsuika tomei-deme gave that prophecy?”

“How do you know her name?” Lenpaki began shift his staff over thing floor as in turns of thoughts. “Your waram taught you too much.”

“Padami Chawadan! How old is she now? Must be over eighty?”

“Being one with harmony keeps you well.” Lenpaki pointed his staff at me. “It will cut your life short, Ogami-soi.”

Ogami nodded in vague concession. I chewed my lip and stared at the grapeshot of bubbles rising to the surface of the water.

Lenpaki rose, clucked. “The waram spoilt you with hekare tastes”

“I must have pleased him exceedingly.”

“You?” Lenpaki let out an airy laugh. “Ogami-soi, I don’t see you making another burn.”

“I needed to make only one burn.”

“And the important one too.” Lenpaki repositioned his green robe over his left shoulder. He must have been tired standing there. I was a bit sorry. Perhaps the water would boil faster.

“I remember one pot-bellied sadhai being red-eyed over me when I was eleven.” An untamed smile appeared on Lenpaki’s face. “I fled back to my parent’s house.”

Ogami pulled his hands into his wide brown sleeves and brooded. “Happiness is surrendering to your fate to cause of harmony.”

“A fate of hekare fantasies in the bush!” Lenpaki jeered.  “Isn’t better if you never tasted of rich things than to taste of them and never be able to afford?”

Ogami mused at his carving knife and the wood peels on the floor. “It’s better to surrender to the will of harmony.”

The conversation escaped much of my young mind, but the much I understood, that much I held fast like a eagle clawing its prey.  Ogami had a low rank like me. Certainly not a lowly shunja like me, but he began low as another’s catamite and soared high. That was encouraging. If Ogami could overcome a low status through education and refinement then I could prevail.  Gion was within my grasp.  Who knows? Ogami might decided to claim me as his own and give me the sanli.  The realization elated me to smiling and humming over the simmering pot.

Ogami stumbled to his feet and arose like a brown-draped owl.  He went to the corner with the larder, retrieved the cups and bowls for phoi, then sat by me.  There were two tiny cups, like thimbles really, white and rimmed with green.

He looked over to Lenpaki’s bemused stare.  “Are you having any?”

“Is the Shunja making it?”

“Yes?”

But in my clumsiness, I splashed water on the ground as I tried to ladle hot water into the bowl.  The splatter missed Ogami’s wrinkled finger; in a grunting shuffle, he raised cool eyes to me. “You’re right to decline,” he said to Lenpaki. “I can’t guarantee its excellence today.”

Before I could fall headlong into brooding, Ogami grabbed the bamboo ladle from me. With tidy, efficient movements, he brewed the broken pieces of phoi bark. His back was always high, his yawning sleeves never bothersome, never the errant twitch or grimace on his face. He was unapproachably perfect.  I felt myself slide down a cavernous decline, but then two cups were ready and steaming.

The delicate white of the cup contrasted the steaming fulvous liquid. The room was aloft with the scent of fennel and cinnamon. Ogami forwarded a cup to me. I bit my upper lip to hide a grimace—Ogami offered, and so I would accept gracefully.

“Che! Wasting good phoi on it,” Lenpaki said.

I determined to drink with as much elegance as Ogami would praise.  Right hand on cup, left hand holding back the right sleeve. Savor, not guzzle. Eyes hard and unyielding at the host, not drooping and pusillanimous.  Be careful with the cup made by a genius sadhai potter. We had eaten nothing but root vegetables for three months to afford it.

They say phoi is good for the soul, not because it is bitter, but because you must conjure sweetness to elide its unpleasantness.  I could conjure no sweetness, not with Ogami’s graven eyes on me.  Even my hands quivered a little on setting the cup down.

“To fehimsa,” I mumbled the salutation.

Ogami grunted in turn as he prepared another cup for himself. But Lenpaki was at the door still inconvenienced by my presence, so I got up as collected as I could be and slithered to the inner chamber.

Inside the relative dimness of the inner chamber, I slid down against the wall and gathered the sleeves to myself. Light rayed from the one window over the mat weaving on the ground. The room had a gloomy smallness to it; I disliked being confined in it.

Laughter rang through the door.  It was Lenpaki’s, had to be. Ogami would never laugh that freely, or for that matter laugh at all.

“The tomei-deme gave the same prophecy when I was child,” Ogami said dimly, “Nothing happened.”

“There was the plague and then the flood.”

“Bodies were swept out in the hoary sea, and Kendan did not come.”

“My father claimed the palace dome in Jommon fell.” Lenpaki’s voice thinned raspy.

“It did. The court ladies flounced out into the streets without their veils. And the roofs fell on them, cracked their skulls and black teeth.”

“Padmi will guide us to fehimsa!” There was a loud slurp.

There was a loud mournful sigh, probably from Ogami. “What does it matter?”

“I suppose you’re right. The Kabiyesi will leads us to fehimsa. We have gion.”

Heat rose up my gullet. Gion. Even though Ogami may have raised his station, he always had gion.  And I … how would I stand when Kendan descends from his mount and lead all with gion to the pure land of fehimsa.  How? The phoi and its bitter memories flooded my tongue.

Later that night, after Lenpaki had long gone, and supper had long been eaten, I and Ogami lay in the simmering darkness of the inner chamber, counting the howls of jackals.

“When Kendan comes, do you think the world will end? Is that it?” I asked.

Snores, more guttural snores.

There was the hard ground pressed against my lower back, and above me the Cimmerian sea aglow with my imaginations of apocalypse.  I fell asleep, eventually.

Chapter three 

 

Mandate of Kendan, Chapter 1: Good before Bad

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

 

Mandate of Kendan, Serial Novel

So I have decided to serialized the novel, Mandate of Kendan.  The work in its purest sense is a high fantasy because it  is done in a secondary world; however the work lacks the epic quality usual to a traditional high fantasy like say LOTR or WOT.  The world is heavily premised on feudal Japan but I have chosen to changes things and names around as I see fit because I was interested in my own mythology, and I didn’t want readers to demand a one-to-one correspondence between my fictional world and feudal Japan.

I shall post chapters here and kindle.  But the kindle version will monthly or so, just to have a good word-count to price ratio.

I am definitely excited about this.  Please let me know what you think.