In the end, what do we really leave behind? For the completion of this oneshot, BE SURE to read SiriusFan13's responsive piece, All That Matters!
The clearing was anything but silent. The breeze rustling the tops of the trees also whistled forlornly through the many cracks in the little cabin's dried and loosened wallboards. Hanging crookedly and creaking on its long-neglected hinges, the door periodically banged against its jamb.
Weathered and broken household sundries littered the area immediately outside the door, dragged there by curious and hopeful marauders: a wooden bucket that used to smell of dried fish and tofu; three empty, shredded rice sacks; several sake jugs that had been successfully breached by clever raccoons.
Inside was a similar scenario. Filling one corner, the futon, though cannibalized for parts, remained mostly intact, but clearly now bedded beings other than human. The rack of shelves still stood, their contents dusty and disarranged: overturned tea mugs, squirrels' nests, sake cups. The ginger jar by the door had long ago relinquished its contents, and sand from the fire pit dusted the worn floor.
The fire in the nearby kiln was no longer so much as a memory to those who frequented the place.
These were the only remaining traces of the hut's original occupant. When he had finally departed, departed truly and for good, on that singularly cold early-winter's day, the grateful creatures in the surrounding forest waited but a few days before creeping warily nearer, drawn by the unmistakable silence and smell.
In the way of things, the wolves took care of nature's first business, and reaped their reward. The litter of the pack's alpha female all survived quite nicely that winter. One cub in particular, a strangely-colored one with glowing eyes, quite outstripped his mates. By spring it was clear that this one would be favored in the next struggle for leadership.
When the wolves finished their task, a meager handful of cleaned bones remained, whitening in the dry mountain air. He had been returned, as thoroughly and as harmoniously as a fallen tree, to the earth, to the life from which he had sprung.
After the wolves came the scavengers. They tore into bedding and clothing, and broke open food containers that had proved too tricky for canine paws and jaws. They carried away bits of twine, hashi, straw futon stuffing—in short, anything around which a nest could be built, anything that could be woven or matted or fluffed.
In this corner of the world, at least, life's efficient and thrifty circle had operated as designed.
This midsummer's day brought a new visitor to the clearing, putting the usual denizens on alert and causing them to go quiet and still. They all knew this one; not one of them was unfamiliar with the dread threat posed by the approach of this creature.
The man stepped out of the shadows of the trees and stopped dead in his tracks. What in the hell … ? He moved toward the cabin, picking his way wonderingly through the wreckage strewn about.
"Hiko?" he called out, at first tentatively, then with note of dread: "Hey, Hiko! You around here?"
No human voice replied, but had the man known how to listen for it, he would have heard his answer in the wind, in the flutter of torn cloth, in the clink of a window prop's hinge as it rattled, empty and useless.
He shoved the door completely open and braced it with the broken lid of the ginger jar. The early afternoon sun streamed into the cabin's interior, dust motes dancing through the rays and disappearing into the surrounding dark, made even darker by contrast with the unaccustomed light.
What happened here? Did he just leave? That doesn't sound like him…
Shuffling carefully through the debris on the floor, he picked his way around the room, trying to make sense of the clues—the collar and one shoulder of a cape, shredded and filthy, but undeniably present; the familiar traveling pack, in its accustomed place in the corner; the walking shoes still on top of a chest against the far wall.
Where can he be? How can he both not have left and still not be here?
The he saw it—unbelievably, considering the devastation, still in its mount on the wall: Winter Moon, the heirloom of the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu.
Oh, no… If that's here, and he's not…
The man, no stranger to loss, even more wrenching loss than this, steeled himself against the flood of emotions at this realization. Lifting the sword down, he hefted it in his hands, wondering at its weight. It felt almost alive with ancient, multi-layered ki.
Well, this settles it. He must be dead, after all.
He cast about in his mind for the list of people to tell, and was saddened by the recognition that there was almost no one but himself. Those still alive had never been close to the man—as if anyone had ever been "close". Only the dead, who by now had already welcomed him, would have truly grieved for him. He was left to burn a joss stick by himself in the temple, to send a lone prayer heavenward, to recount only to himself the stories, the glory and the pain, the dreams and the failures. To treasure Winter Moon, in solitude.
He wandered outside, at a loss in this unexpected role of "next of kin", and sat down on the log in front of the silent, cold kiln. Running his hands over the revered sword, he marveled at the perfection of its condition, especially given its age.
And its history, which now I'll never know.
What battles had it turned? What heroes had wielded it? Who were the innocents, and their descendents, living their lives in peace today because of its power?
He let his eyes wander over the chaos.
Well, at least I can clean up the place. Leaving it looking like this would be disrespectful.
He lay the sword down by the log. Re-entering the cabin, he picked up the traveling pack and inspected it. No holes, straps still strong. Yes, it would do to carry away what no longer belonged here. The man had never had much in the way of possessions, and what was left would fit in the bag.
I'll leave anything that might be useful. Even in this condition, it will provide shelter to a lost or stranded traveler.
He worked efficiently, and really, there wasn't that much. He picked up the broken bits of pottery, the remnants of cloth that had been clothing—this red and white rag, can that really have been…?—the bent and battered cooking pot and utensils.
He re-tied the leather hinges holding the door so that it worked properly. He couldn't do anything about the window covers without some tools, but gravity kept them at least hanging over the windows. It was just that they could no longer be propped up to let in light and air.
What are these bones? They don't look like anything he would have eaten; he practically became a vegetarian as he got older…
Suddenly, the man gasped and dropped them with a start, recoiling in horrified comprehension. He sat down on the log with a thud, breathing hard and stunned.
It took him several minutes to recover himself.
Well, at least I can give him a decent burial. Sort of.
He shook his head grimly.
He's probably laughing about that right now.
He rose, and did just that. He used the large cooking spoon as a shovel, and it didn't take long. The bones were few and needed only a shallow hole. When he was done, he thrust the largest of the pottery shards into the top of the tidy mound as a marker, and stood for a moment in silence.
Then he turned his face skyward and breathed deeply.
Time to be heading home, I guess. Tsubame will be expecting me for dinner.
He hefted the pack over his shoulder, and looked around the clearing, checking its appearance.
I think I'll take those walking shoes. It's funny that I should have grown up to be almost as big as he was—I was such a shrimp back then.
Setting the pack down, he went back into the cabin, over to the chest against the wall, and picked up the worn but still serviceable shoes. He turned and sat on the chest. Tying the last lace, he leaned back against the wall and wriggled his toes.
They fit! Great—my others are ready for the trash bin, anyway.
As he stood, he really noticed the chest for the first time; its presence piqued his curiosity.
What is this, anyway? I don't remember its being here.
He lifted the lid, surprisingly heavy for such a small box—probably why the animals didn't get into it—and was greeted with bundles of yellowed paper, obviously torn from news circulars. He wasn't sure what he had been expecting, but this was not it.
Taking them outside into the slanting afternoon light, he spread them out on the ground and scanned the headlines.
Why would he have these?
He began to read. All the articles were dated between '64 and '68. Most of them were death notices of highly-placed officials in the overthrown Shogunate. Others were accounts of politically motivated murders, of street fighting, of clashes between the Shinsengumi and the Ishin Shishi; analyses of power struggles, of the meanings behind official pronouncements and rulings; cheery accounts of social functions, with careful lists of names of attendees.
As he read, understanding dawned. Then shock, and incredulity.
Oh my god! He… he followed Kenshin's "career"?
The thought was almost more than he could take in. He'd spent enough time around the two to understand Kenshin's insecurity regarding his master, enough time to develop a healthy resentment toward the man for his lack of appreciation for Kenshin's talent, his character, his burden and sacrifice.
But this… This blew all that right out of the water. The master had followed—no, not just followed, but had seemed almost to obsess over—his apprentice's activities and life. To almost anyone else, the cache of articles would have seemed a distinctly motley collection, disconnected, almost random. But to a certain few, to those who knew the back story, who knew the players and the motivations, the writings were a detailed, almost blow-by-blow account of the struggle for the new order, of the desperation of idealistic men driven to extraordinary means in their fight to better their world.
The day lengthened, duties of home and daily worries of the peaceful Meiji era forgotten, as the man read and re-lived those days. Again, his heart yearned to be as strong as his hero; again, he felt the terror of encounters with evil and the unknown; again, his spirit mounted within him when circumstance chose him as point-man, when his strength was tested, and proved worthy.
It was dusk by the time the last article was read, when the last memory was exhausted, when he awoke to the present.
And now, at last, he knew the right tribute to the man who was gone. To both men who were gone.
Kneeling at the little mound, he worked at it with his hands, re-forming its top into a slight depression. The pottery shard that had been standing upright he laid down in this hollow, and into this bowl he gathered a pile of kindling. Taking his flint from his sleeve, he struck a spark into the kindling, and blew gently on the smoking twigs. In the gathering gloom, the spark caught and flared brightly. Before its energy could fade, he began to feed the aged bits of paper into the wavering flame, slowly at first, until the fire was well established, then in larger chunks. The little blaze stretched really quite high into the night.
He sat back in satisfaction, and entranced by the red and yellow tongues licking the cool air, watched as joyous sparks leapt even higher, as glowing ashes escaped earth's gravity to soar up, up even above the treetops. His cheeks reddened with the heat, and his eyes reflected the dance of light and beauty.
When at last the fire was dying, its fuel spent, when the words on the pages, and the times and lives and hopes and struggles recorded by them, lived only in his heart and in the smoke ascending to the stars—only then did he turn away.
He shrugged the saya's cords over his head and threaded one arm and shoulder through them, settling the prize on his back for the long trek home, then hoisted the full pack onto the other shoulder. One last look to make sure all was as it should be.
The man turned and headed down the hill, melting into the forest and into the night.