Chapter Seven: A Floating Leaf
Days pass. My fever gets better and worse at decidedly unpredictable intervals. Orin-san gives me bitter medicinal tea every time I wake. Fuu smiles a lot, hiding whatever worries she might be contemplating. As for Mugen, he's invariably laying outside the door on the engawa, looking supremely bored.
Then, one morning, I awaken to find that my fever has broken. I feel dizzy and drained, but the soreness which had previously wracked my entire body has faded away. And I've awoken before anyone else. This is a good sign.
I decide, then and there, never to become ill again. It's rather humiliating, and tedious. I mark it down as altogether contrary to what a man should be doing with his time.
Sensei never got ill. And, there you go. Surely he decided, somewhere in his youth, never to indulge in such a frivolous pastime.
A man can decide, of his own accord, to go against nature. Just because the natural world is depicted as this monstrous force over which we have no control, doesn't mean we should stand by idly and permit ourselves to become victims. All things which seek to press a man into submission must be fought with the utmost strength available.
Wait. Isn't that the sort of opinion Mugen generally espouses?
Well, maybe I'm still a little sick.
And I reek, too. I need a bath.
Hm. If I couldn't see the color of the sleeves on my gi, I'd have the strange impression that I went to sleep as Jin and woke up as Mugen. The thought is more grippingly horrifying than the concept of dying to that ruffian's blade.
I make my way out of Orin-san's little house, and head toward the sound of the nearby mountain stream. Things seem strangely clear, the sun's rays appear crisper. The rustling leaves and the twigs crunching under my feet sound more distinct. I breathe deeply, filling myself with the scent of pine, wild mint, and clover. It is as refreshing as any tea, though I doubt I would say such a thing to Orin-san.
I am surprised to find that the stream is not frigid. Perhaps it is warmed from heat kept deep within the mountain. As the blissfully temperate water washes away the last remaining aches within my body, I experience a strange moment of peace.
At this juncture, what cares have I? What concerns? The constant peril which has plagued this journey sets itself in stark and absurd relief to the tranquility of the moment. The necessity to search for whatever it is I have been seeking fades to a dull whisper, to a background murmur, quieter than the stream in which I bathe.
I watch as a single leaf, the size of my palm, falls from a nearby tree, and pushed by wind and currents, sails across the water. Sometimes it spins, sometimes it becomes quite still. For a moment it gets caught near the bank, unable to move. Then it breaks free and races away from me at such a speed I fear it might capsize.
Does it care where it is going? Does it fight against the current? Does it struggle against the wind? Is it filled with sorrow for parting with the tree?
No. I think it enjoys the journey. I think it enjoys the journey, very much.
If it did not, it would have clung to the tree far more tightly.
I do not know what will become of me. I do not know if I will die soon, or many years from now. I do not know if Mugen and I will ever settle our duel, if Fuu will find her Sunflower Samurai, if we will all part ways and this journey will become a distant memory to each of us. I do not know if I will ever see Shino-san again.
All I do know is that if I cling to a tree too tightly, I will never know even as much as a simple leaf does.
I wiggle my toes in the water. It's something I've seen Fuu do several times while fishing. She'll dip her toes into the water, and just move them around. Mugen does the same thing, but I'd rather not think about his hairy toes, and I'm pretty sure he does it just to loosen up the gunk in his toenails. Still, they both appeared to enjoy it, and...
Well, I suppose it does feel nice.
How do they know these things? I've studied a great many books, and social protocols, and techniques, but I've never come across even a single scholar or sensei who mentions such a thing as the joy of wiggling one's toes in water. None of them tell you how to catch an eel out of a bucket. No one has ever revealed to me how to comfort a crying Fuu, or outdrink a bottomless-stomached barbarian.
There are no books about the things you really should know.
My moment of clarity is shattered by a wall of water, much of which decides to enter my head by way of my mouth and my nostrils. Instead of going for my katana, I pinch the bridge of my nose, and narrow my eyes at Mugen when his head reappears.
"That's a cannonball," Mugen says, "You know? Like when those foreign ships shoot big fat balls of iron at things? It completely destroys all the damn samurai."
"I am not destroyed." I try not to cough, but I can't help it, exactly. Water up one's nose is decidedly unpleasant.
Mugen smirks at my discomfort. He swishes around in the water a bit, until he finds where he wants to be, which thankfully isn't very close to me. "Water's not bad." He looks over at me, and juts out his bottom lip. "View could be better, though."
"Why are you here?"
"I was beginning to smell like that old lady's house. Chicks don't want guys that smell like old women."
"How astute." I decide not to tell him that women probably don't favor the regular odor-of-Mugen, either.
"Plus, they were both snoring. Fuck, you ever heard women snore like that?"
"So do you, asshole."
This is asinine. I decide not to respond with the obvious statement, which is that I do not snore, because I don't. (Do I?) Instead, I just sit in silence. Maybe if I ignore him, he'll get bored, and leave me in peace.
I wait for Mugen to try and taunt me again, but surprisingly, he doesn't. He just leans against a rock, submerged up to his sternum, a typically uncouth sneer plastered on his face. I have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a person. What is he thinking about now? Is he thinking about how to find sake and women? Is he even capable of human thought? I suppose I would have just as much luck trying to figure out the mind of Fuu's animal.
What do I care what he's thinking? How absurd.
Finally, he asks, "Does the old woman know about you?"
I realize I have been watching the ripples on the water, the tiny waves created by the softly swirling water hitting my skin. Everything is like this. Interconnected by some invisible fluid. The more you try to run away from it, the more ripples you will create.
I realize my mistake as soon as the word comes out of my mouth. Mugen only asked because he wants to use the information as leverage, to blackmail me. I don't know what he wants out of me, I just know I won't like it.
"It is not my concern what she thinks of me," I say. Surely, it couldn't possibly matter, one way or the other, if Orin-san finds out that I killed sensei. She's just an old woman I knew in my childhood. She is nothing to me.
Mugen rolls his eyes, and turns around, crossing his arms to lean them on a rock. His voice is like a fire, like the blazing pits used to forge swords. "Someone should kill that crone. Put her down like an old lame dog. People shouldn't live past their time."
His insinuation burns into me. Before I can even think, my hand is on my katana, my fingers curl around the hilt, and the blade ends up pointed at Mugen's neck. Every muscle in my body has lost the relaxation provided by the warm water. He doesn't move, even though he knows I'm pointing a blade at him. It's surprising, really, that he's left himself open like this. He's nowhere even close to his sword. He's completely unclothed, defenseless. I should kill him while I have this advantage.
But, stabbing a man in the back just isn't...right.
"Respect your elders," I say, my voice surprising even me with its clipped monotone.
He doesn't turn around, and instead just places his hands on the rock and pulls himself out of the water. In the process, I see bared parts of Mugen that I just never wanted to fathom. How is it that he's even tan there? Ugh.
"Heh." He finishes climbing out of the water and walks away, naked and apparently feeling no need to be immediately clothed. "You've got to be the stupidest person in Japan."
In return for her hospitality, we've decided to assist Orin-san in making some repairs on her dilapidated home. Or, rather, I'm doing the repairing while Mugen and Fuu squabble about every little thing. Their arguments seem endless. Yet, whenever Orin-san shows up, Mugen finds an excuse to wander off. I don't know why he has such an aversion to old people, and I frankly don't care. I'm just glad for the peace and quiet.
"Jin-san, do be careful on that roof." Orin-san shields her eyes from the sunlight as she looks up at me. "My goodness, Fuu-san, these young men are so very energetic, aren't they?"
"I wish they'd be less energetic sometimes," Fuu grumbles. I can't see her, because she's hidden by the eaves of the engawa, but I'm certain she has that post-argument pout on her face. She's been mending some of Orin-san's clothing and baskets, since Orin-san can no longer see well enough for the delicate work. "They're always fighting. It gives me a real headache."
I hear a raspy laugh come from Orin-san, "And Fuu-san is energetic too, hm?" Fuu doesn't respond, at least not vocally. Orin-san continues, "My my, what wonderful work you've done with the baskets. I'm sure you must have quite an appetite by now."
I can almost hear Fuu's stomach grumble from here.
"Why don't you take this jug of tea up to Jin-san, hm? By the time you get finished, I should be back with some snacks."
Snacks. It's got to be Fuu's favorite word. Did I eat quite so much when I was still growing? I don't think the entire dojo consumed in a week as much food as Fuu could consume in a day.
A minute later, Fuu's head pokes over the edge of the roof. "Geez, Jin, are you going to hide up here all day? You don't have to make this place as impenetrable as Edo Castle, you know."
I just keep working. Anything worth doing, is worth doing right the first time. Fuu finishes climbing up the ladder, and perches on the edge of the roof, her feet dangling precariously over the side. She puts the jug of tea down beside her legs, and looks back over her shoulder at me. "Orin-san said you should drink this. It'll do no good if you overwork yourself and end up getting sick again."
"Aa." I suppose I am a bit thirsty. I put down the bundle of straw I've been stuffing into a hole in Orin-san's roof and go to sit beside Fuu. Because of the angle of the roofing, I can't sit properly on my knees. Even sitting cross-legged turns out a bit worrisome, tilting me forward at a strange angle.
Fuu watches me attempt to get comfortable, and just laughs. "It's a roof, Jin, not an audience with a daimyo."
"Aa." I finally decide to just do as Fuu is doing, and let my legs dangle over the side of the roof. I think, before this journey, I would have been even more uncomfortable to sit so informally in public. Fuu hands me the tea, which I uncork and drink. It's good, but has been mixed with some strange spice or herb I can't place.
"It's so pretty. And so big. From the ground, because of the trees, you can't tell how absolutely huge it is."
I glance up from drinking, and follow Fuu's line of sight. From the roof, you can see far into the valley. The scores and scores of trees melt into one another, creating a soft carpet that extends seemingly forever. The only thing which mars the continual green is a thin stripe snaking through the valley, the unnamed river which led us to Orin-san's house. I wonder how high up you'd have to go in order to be able to see all the way back to Kyoto...or even to Edo.
"It's hard to think that we traveled that far."
To the west, the sun sits low in the sky, surrounded by the oranges and pinks of pre-twilight. I wonder how many sunsets we've passed through on our journey. Was it many? Or was it only a few? Did we begin only yesterday, or have we been traveling together for a very long time? Time seems strange, like the writing in a foreign book, indecipherable.
Fuu turns her face toward the sunset, and it reflects all the colors of the sky, as if it were alight and glowing, a source of some unfathomable energy. The wind nudges little tendrils of her hair. She smiles a bit, but the smile is far away, lost in a thought I will never know, I'm sure. Sometimes, I think I make a mistake in forgetting that Fuu is just as secretive as Mugen or I. There is much about her that we just don't know.
"Sunset always makes me think of sunflowers. You know why? Because sunflowers turn to follow the journey of the sun all day long. But then, at night, the sun disappears. And the sunflowers are stuck looking for the sun in the direction that it set. And all through the night, they're waiting and waiting. But, sunflowers don't have legs, so they can't go to the west to find out where the sun went. All they can do is wait, full of sadness that the sun has left them. That's why their seeds are shaped like teardrops."
I don't have anything to say to that, so I just take another sip of tea, and turn to look at the sunset. This is...nice, I think. Sitting here, on the roof, with Fuu. There's something so familiar about it, even though I know it has never happened before.
I don't know what it means to feel this way. I decide not to think about it. I decide to be a leaf, tumbling and spinning on the current of a forest stream.
"I'm so hungry," Fuu mumbles. Then she yawns. "Orin-san said she'd bring...snacks...so...where is she...anyway?"
I keep drinking the tea. The one good thing about Fuu is that she's long since stopped requiring me to actually answer -most- of her questions. I notice she's given up on trying to keep Mugen in line, much of the time, too. Maybe there's a point at which you just realize that people are going to be the way they are, and there's just nothing you can really do about it. Even if it annoys you, or infuriates you, there's nothing you can do.
I watch the sunset for a long time. Fuu is uncharacteristically silent. After her story about the sunflowers, the sunset seems to have all the more meaning than before. It's as if something important should be revealed when the sun disappears, some answer to the whole mystery of this long journey. I find myself anticipating the darkness in an almost irrational way.
And then, when the bottom curve of the sun touches the treetops to the west, I feel a heaviness on my arm. It's alarming. But, when I turn to look, I find that I'm gazing at the top of Fuu's head. She's leaning against me. Or rather, she's fallen asleep, and I've been designated the most convenient futon.
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do. This is certainly less than decent. I should wake her up, but in a way that doesn't startle her and cause her to fall off the roof. Maybe if I tried...shifting my weight... No, perhaps I should just clear my throat.
I try that, but it doesn't seem to work.
So, I just leave her be. It's not a horrible feeling, the weight of Fuu's head on my arm. Maybe it does mean something. I don't know what, but maybe it's important.
But, why does my arm feel so...wet?
"Hey, are you...drooling?"
Fuu shifts her weight a little, and I hear her murmur, "I'm so hungry."
But, what can I do?
I'm just a leaf, tumbling downstream.
I'm just a sunflower samurai, following the journey of the sun...
A sun who is chasing a sunflower samurai of her own.
"I have to thank you, Jin-san, for all the help you and your friends have given me. My house looks even better than when I moved in with my sister. And Fuu-san has been such a delight. I don't know about that other young man, though. He seems a bit dangerous."
She doesn't know the half of it. "It was no trouble."
Orin-san asked me to walk with her to the river before we leave to continue our journey. The path through the woods twists and turns, but I'm somehow relieved for even this hint of a road. At least you know which way you're supposed to be going.
I have to slow my pace considerably so that I don't lose Orin-san. It's almost a difficult task, to remember not to walk at my usual speed. Still, it does give me a reason to look at all of the foliage. Fuu's right. You just can't tell how enormous this forest is when you're on the ground.
"I am glad for you, Jin-san, glad that you have found friends. I was worried about you for a long time, but I don't have to worry anymore, do I?"
Why would she worry about me? She barely knew me, and we certainly have not been in contact for many years. Well, I suppose older people become more easily nostalgic for strange things and odd places.
"There's no reason..."
Orin-san stops walking. She's a few paces ahead of me, being the one who knows where we're going. "Yukimaru-san came here some months ago. He told a tale to me, a tale about wickedness and betrayal which destroyed the good dojo where you and I once lived." Orin-san reaches out and touches a low-hanging branch. Her old fingers brush over a yellow-green leaf, as if caressing it, calming it. "He spoke of a terrifying monster which had taken up residence in the heart of a quiet boy I once knew, of a sword which had become what Mariya-sensei always feared, of a great wrong which had been done to my old employer."
I'm surprised, but I refrain from showing it. I never even suspected that Orin-san might already know about sensei. She never, for a single moment, led me to believe that she had heard the tale from Yukimaru-kun.
"But, I've not met any such monster over these past few days, Jin-san. So, I know Yukimaru-san must be wrong, mustn't he?"
I don't know what she wants. Does she want me to reassure her, to tell her that I am not the one who killed sensei? But, it would not exactly be appropriate to lie. A lie would be contrary to the tenets of bushido, and would invalidate the forthrightness with which I am attempting to live my life.
But, why would I even consider lying? Why does it matter to me if this old woman knows the truth? Why does it matter to me...
If Mugen and Fuu know the truth?
Am I guilty? Do I feel...guilty? Despite the fact that I know what I did, and what I continue to do, was right by the code of the samurai, do I secretly doubt the purity of my intent, then as well as now?
Or is there something wholly different at work here?
Something even simpler. Something which can be boiled down to one simple question.
If they know, will things change between us?
To Fuu, Mugen, and even Orin-san, will Jin still be Jin?
Or an unfathomable monster?
I see Orin-san's fingernails clip a leaf from the tree as she waits for my answer. It spins and twirls through the air, now freed to float nigh and fro, fast and slow, until it alights upon a puddle formed by the early morning rain.
"There was a monster at the dojo," I say, as I bend down to pick up the leaf. "And betrayal did arise."
Even though Orin-san is not facing me, I can tell that her gnarled old hand has moved to cover her lips.
"But, as my wise sensei taught, I struck at the heart of it, before it could spread."
We leave Orin-san's on a brilliantly clear morning, and travel, according to her directions, to the nearby village where she usually sells her medicinal herbs. It is not a large place, this village, but any semblance of civilization is a relief after spending so much time in the woods.
And, it has an inn.
We spend a few days working to acquire traveling funds, though we encounter a slight hitch in our plans when Mugen gambles half of our savings away, and subsequently runs afoul of the local yakuza when he tries to get the money back through not particularly upright means. Mugen says they cheated him out of his money. I'm not sure which is worse, that he fell for their cheating, or that he was angry about it afterwards.
I manage to acquire another map, and a small pouch in which to keep a certain leaf I, for some reason, decided to take as a souvenir of our visit with Orin-san.
Fuu says that the way they prepare steamed trout in this town is the most delicious she's ever had. It's unimaginably tender, and she's sorry that she ate it all before we came back from dealing with the yakuza.
I sit down to clean my katana and listen to them argue.
"Okay, okay. New question. If you could be meet any person from history, who would you meet?"
Mugen groans loudly. "Not this shit again."
We're walking along the banks of a small river. We were walking more swiftly, this afternoon, when it became apparent that we were no longer welcome in the previous village. But, it seems that no one decided to follow us, so now we've settled into our usual pace.
"C'mon. Jin, who would you want to meet?"
Fuu sighs and shakes her head. "I should have seen that one coming." She points at Mugen. "Your turn."
Mugen scratches his head for a moment, and then says, "Masamune's wife."
Ugh. Does he have to sully everything good and decent in this world? "Inappropriate."
"Well, he spent so much time working on those damn swords, she was probably itching for it, if you know what I mean."
Fuu just makes a face and tries to ignore Mugen's more lecherous thoughts. "I can't think of who I'd want to meet. I'm too hungry to think."
"Hey! You asked the question!"
I blink. "Did you really want to know her answer?"
Mugen shrugs, and grumbles something about how he doesn't really care. He keeps grumbling as he wanders toward the edge of the river and begins to look for bait and a sturdy reed to use for fishing.
I start to collect wood for the fire. This is the way it is. These are the parts that we play. We all know our place within this journey. As Fuu once said: Fuu is Fuu, Mugen is Mugen, and Jin is Jin. Who we are is probably who we will always be. You can struggle against it, like a fish swimming upstream, like a leaf clinging to a tree, like a sunflower straining to see what is already gone, or you can just go with the flow.
It's not too long before we're all sitting around the fire, watching the fish sizzle in the flames.
"How much longer until we get to Nagasaki?" Fuu asks.
I reach into my gi and rummage around. I blink a few times, and pull my hand out. Then I try again.
Fuu leans forward, her eyes going extremely wide. "Don't tell me... Don't tell me you lost the map again!"
"I lost the map again."
"WHAT?" There's flame in Fuu's eyes, and I don't think it's the reflection of the campfire. "Are you serious?"
I reach into my gi and pull out a section of paper.
"No," I say as I unfold the map, "I'm not serious."
And for once, being less than serious feels just fine.
"Anyway," Mugen asks, "Just how far is it to Nagasaki?"
I consult the map. It seems, in our wandering, we've traveled further than we thought. "We've already passed Nagasaki."
GO WITH THE FLOW.
I hope you all enjoyed reading "An Amalgam of Lost Tales". I certainly enjoyed writing it. I don't know that I will be writing any more Samurai Champloo fanfiction, since I think this got out of my system what I wanted to explore.
Masamune: Considered one of the forefathers, if not THE forefather, of katana craftsmanship. I don't know if he actually had a wife, and Mugen probably doesn't know, either.
Cannons: Actually, the Japanese had them at least by 1600. Though, I believe they were fairly small.
Special thanks to all reviewers. Your kind words and encouragement are always appreciated. So, thanks to: roman, Emerald, RaevanDawn, sarcastic rabbit, Reia, koalared, Patosan, xcloudx, selinianuo, en route, poornmiserable, Ellie, Nightmare Alchemist, Ouatic-7, Elementary Magpie, and CinnamonGrrl.