Lesson # 2 - Goods & Services
We set out to make change, and find that change makes us.
He couldn't understand it. Kenshin had been so eager to accompany him to town today. Yesterday, he'd almost driven Hiko to distraction with rapid-fire questions about what kind of food they would eat and how many people would be there and whether he would have to climb the trees to see above the crowd—Where does he come up with these ideas?—He'd skipped down the mountain path ahead of Hiko, chattering and darting in and out of the side brush to gather stones and twigs and worms that all went together into the front of his shirt.
But as soon as they'd hit the market streets, thronging with shoppers and ne'er-do-wells and lined with stalls and merchants and carts filled with every manner of goods, his demeanor changed abruptly. He grew quiet, and stuck close to Hiko's side. Peeking out from under his hair with large, wary eyes, he clung with one sweaty fist to the back of his master's trousers, hiding in Hiko's ample shadow.
Hiko customarily took his time with this task. He didn't come down off the mountain often, and although he didn't relish the actual company of most people—Those not fools and boors are sure to be either greedy scoundrels or deceitful schemers—he enjoyed the spectacle he created, the sidelong, appraising glances from the bolder girls, the open envy from other men. His height alone prompted amazed stares, and he moved with a self-assurance that parted crowds before him and trailed a wake of turned heads and open mouths.
They moved from stall to stall, Hiko taking his time to examine that which interested him, to interrogate the merchants closely about the quality of their wares, and taking care to indicate what he thought of their asking prices. He preferred to take the measure of the marketplace as a whole before he settled on which merchants to deal with, although he already knew exactly from whom he'd be re-supplying his sake store. He remembered he needed a new rice pot, and he could stand to invest in a second pair of shoes; the boy needed something to sleep in, and that hair of his had broken their only comb just last week.
But at each stop, with every merchant Hiko spoke to, Kenshin grew quieter and clutched more fiercely to his trousers. At the rice merchant's kiosk, the boy took one look at the barrels stacked as high as his master's shoulder and buried his head between the man's legs, almost knocking Hiko right into a nearby cart loaded with dried cod.
What is wrong with him? Are the crowds spooking him?
Something had to be done about the situation. He looked ridiculous trailing a small boy from his rear like some bizarre processional. Maybe the kid just needed a little prodding, a little encouragement. Something to take his mind off himself. Hiko decided to make a positive gesture. Get the boy involved in the haggling, the excitement of the bargain.
That should fix him.
"Kenshin, would you like to help—" He twisted around right and left to find the boy's face, but Kenshin's head was buried in the backs of his thighs. This would never work; Hiko couldn't talk to someone he couldn't even see. Frustrated and embarrassed, he growled, "Baka deshi! Get out here!" He reached around and grabbed the back of the boy's shirt, hauling the unwilling creature into the light of day.
Exposed like this, the boy squirmed vigorously, and almost slipped out of his shirt before Hiko could get a grip on one thin shoulder. He could feel the tension in the scrawny body, but raised a warning finger to the small face. Pinned in place by the big man's fierce gaze and a paw nearly as large as his head, Kenshin suddenly stilled and stood in place, pale and panting. Hiko eased his grip, testing to make sure the boy wouldn't bolt. He moved his hand off the thin shoulder—he could feel the clammy sweat right through the kid's shirt—and released the tension in his own shoulders, taking a deep, calming breath.
"That's better now, isn't it?"
The boy looked up at him with a stunned expression. Hiko had seen that look before, on prey gazing at its predator, terrified out of action, out of thought, even out of the ability to run.
Snap out of it, Kenshin! Don't you know you're safe with me…?
"So, Kenshin!" He tried to seem jovial, clapping Kenshin on the back, as gently as he knew how, but still sending the boy staggering forward a step. "We need rice, don't we?" He squatted down and leaned into the small face, placing his hands on the boy's shoulders. "What do you think? Shall I bargain hard with this money-grubber?"
At that, the boy blanched even whiter than normal. For a moment, his body went rigid and he stared up into his master's face with the baldest terror. But only for a moment.
A wriggling flash, and then…
Hiko prided himself on his ability to catch fish with his bare hands. Even the slipperiest pike was no match for his sure, quick fingers. But now he found those same hands suddenly empty, and he nearly fell forward into the void that the instant before had contained his young apprentice. Quickly he glanced around, but caught only a glimpse of red hair disappearing around the corner. Disgusted, he snorted and rose from his semi-crouch.
Fine! Let him run. Let him see what that gets him!
His fine day was ruined for good. He stomped from stall to stall, and the set of his jaw netted him the best bargains ever, but he could take no pleasure from it as he exchanged his coins for the goods that he sought. He couldn't wipe from his vision the image of those large, terrified eyes, and he could still feel the boy's body trembling beneath his hands.
He couldn't work it out—it was almost as though the boy were afraid of him, but that didn't make sense either. I rescued the little moron, for heaven's sake! As he made his way through the market, his irritation gradually faded, but now his heart lay heavy in his chest.
I'd better go find the wretched thing.
Just then, he felt a faltering spirit nearby. Carefully shielding his gaze, he saw, at the edge of his vision, a pair of blue eyes peeking out at him from between the spokes of a cart's wheel.
Relieved, he decided to let the boy come to him. Moving with great calm and deliberation, he stepped over to his final stop, his old friend the sake merchant.
"Hiko, you dog! Where have you been?" The seller, old when they'd met years ago and now approaching ancient, rose from his stool and creaked to the back of the stall to pull out another seat for his friend. "You didn't show last month."
"I've been busy. I have an apprentice now, you know."
"You? I can't believe it!" The old man's pipe had gone out and he took his time relighting it, puffing and wheezing and dropping burning tobacco shards down his front. "I thought the style was going to die with you." The old man peered at him through a blue fog. "I remember you said… What was that now exactly?"
Hiko glared at his friend, not liking where this conversation was headed.
The sake seller clamped the pipe stem tightly between yellowed teeth and grinned slyly. "Your master used to complain to me—bitterly and often, as I recall it—about how hard you were to train. How many times did he tell me he was going to turn you out onto the road? And you…! I had to listen to both of you—the clamor you used to raise about your training..." The old man drew in a deep draught and blew out a long, slow stream. "Didn't you tell me you wouldn't inflict that misery on a dog?"
Hiko looked sharply away, his mouth thinned to a tight line. "Hn. I'm not training a dog. I know how to train a swordsman."
The old man removed his pipe from his mouth by its tiny bowl and poked its stem at the large chest in front of him."Besides all that, what family would be fool enough to let you get your hands on their boy?"
Smirking, Hiko settled himself carefully on the rickety stool. "I found him." He crossed his arms and leaned over into his friend's wrinkled face. "He's an orphan. Rescued him. From a slave train."
The old merchant glanced up sharply. "A slave?" He shook his head doubtfully. "Can't be much of an apprentice, then. No spirit, I'll bet." The pipe had gone out, but he was too interested in the subject at hand to notice.
Hiko felt the boy creep nearer, knew he was standing just the other side of the kiosk wall. "No, that's the surprising thing. The kid has real potential. And not just with the sword. He's got courage and determination." He could almost feel the small ears pricking up. "No matter what I throw at him, he doesn't give up. Never complains."
"I suppose that's something…" The old man made as if to rise, but Hiko placed a restraining hand on his friend's shoulder and jerked his head slightly toward the boy's location. The merchant glanced up, then lifted his chin in acknowledgment. "So you think you can make something of this throwaway?"
"It's more than that." Without raising his voice, he made sure it carried. "He has a sense of right and wrong. He thinks. And asks questions." He felt an odd little sense of pride as he said this, and he didn't try to suppress it in his voice.
"You're not wasting your precious time, then?" His old friend was teasing him, but Hiko didn't mind. He had a point to make. An effect to achieve.
"Far from it." He waited before continuing. He wanted to make sure Kenshin heard this. Clearing his throat, he spoke carefully. "This boy will carry the sword into the new era." He paused. Then, almost to himself, "It will be different than it has been."
" 'Different', eh?" The old man leaned down to knock the ash out of his pipe. "'Different' could be good." He tamped a new ball of tobacco into the now-cold bowl. "The problem is that 'different' is often... well, only different."
Hiko watched as the merchant rummaged in his sleeve and withdrew a thin straw of bamboo, then touched it to the coals of the warming brazier near the gnarled feet. Suddenly, it seemed, he noticed the years on his friend's face, the curve in his back, the gray in his moustache. The tremor in the spotted hands. Shishou would have been nearly this age now… He turned away from that thought to focus instead on his friend's health. A question formed in his mind, but the possible answers killed it before it left his lips. Damn… He felt trapped in time and circumstance, and he shifted impatiently in his seat.
'Only different', eh? Come to think of it, he didn't much like the sound of that—the implication that he didn't know what he was doing, that he couldn't make the world better. Having forgotten the boy listening, he declared, "Listen to me, old man. I intend to leave my mark on this world, and this boy is going to be that mark. It's time that the old ways adjust, and I know what needs to change." He glanced sharply at his old friend, who was focusing a little too intently on his smoldering pipe. Hiko hated that habit of his, pretending not to listen when it mattered most. Almost brusquely, he continued, "I carry the wisdom of the past within me, and I can see clearly the traps of the future. My student will be a bridge between those worlds."
He stopped, suspecting that he'd gotten carried away. A little out of control. Enough.
Now the old man did rise. "Well, it sounds to me like you're going to need plenty of sustenance for that kind of endeavor." He took two jugs of Hiko's usual off a back shelf separated from the merchandise available to passersby. "I've been saving these for you."
The jugs passed from hand to hand, and Hiko was grateful for the small moment of busyness, for the change of subject. Mentally, he shook the last few minutes out of his head. He rose, too, the more easily to dig his money purse out of the front of his shirt. He was eager to leave now, to get back to his mountain, out of this crowd and away from these uncomfortable thoughts—of the past, of the age of his friend. Of the future.
A withered hand on a muscled arm stayed the swordsman. "Not so fast there." The merchant reached under a cloth-covered table and pulled out a smaller bottle. It hung from a fine silken cord and boasted a plug of expensive, dense cork instead of the customary length of coarse wood.
"To mark this auspicious occasion, let me give you this. It's the finest I can get." The man smiled crookedly. "I was going to take it home to my son, but he has no taste anyway." He waved a dismissive hand as he turned his back to fuss unnecessarily with the goods on the front table.
Hiko uncorked the flask and inhaled deeply. The sweet, heady aroma filled his nostrils and made his mouth water. This was very special sake. He replaced the cork and tucked the treasure into the front of his shirt. "Thank you very much." He felt a little guilty for his earlier harshness, and wanted to say something by way of apology. "This will indeed ease a troubled spirit."
Without turning around, the old man grumbled, "Okay, okay—just be here next month."
Directing a short bow at his friend's back, Hiko settled the bag with his purchases over his shoulder, then turned and strode away from the sake shop, along the main thoroughfare of the marketplace, toward the base of the path that led back up the mountain. Back home.
Not too fast, though.
Soon enough, he felt a small hand slip into his.
Hiko looked down at the top of the red head beside him. Quietly, he said, "There you are." The boy's spirit was calmer now.
"Hai. Here I am."
The last booth at the edge of the market was different than the others. This stall was filled with paper balls and pinwheels, brightly painted fish flags, and carved figures of birds and warriors. At the near corner of the stall, a large bowl was piled with whistles and pipes. At the far corner, trays of sweets beckoned, and in front of those stood a barrel bristling with what looked like army standards on long bamboo poles, the painted pennants fluttering and snapping in the breeze.
The pair stopped, and Hiko let the boy take in the riot of color and movement. He felt an unfamiliar softness in his chest.
Toys. Children like toys, right? And sweets…
"Well? Are you just going to stand there looking at them?" He caught himself and, more gently, remembering the day's previous events, "Do you want something to play with? Or something to eat?" He held his breath, but the boy only looked up at him with a shy smile and a clear gaze.
"Hai, shishou. Thank you."
"Well, pick one then." He released the delicate hand. "Don't dawdle."
The boy took a step toward the shelves heavy with fantasy and promises of delight. Hesitantly, he glanced back at his teacher, who motioned him forward. Kenshin moved his gentle fingers over the toys, barely touching them. His hand settled around the stem of a pinwheel colored a soft purple and painted with white flowers spiraling out from its center. He looked up uncertainly.
"Here, boy, you can pay for it yourself." Hiko stepped across the distance between them and pulled the boy's free hand toward him, turning it palm up. At the sudden movement and the roughness of the touch, the boy jerked his hand to pull it back, but Hiko had it firmly in his grasp. He placed a single coin in the outstretched palm, closing the thin fingers over it.
The boy's eyes went wide and Hiko almost feared another runaway, but then the youngster ducked his head, nearly hiding a small smile. He turned and, almost reverently, handed the coin to the girl tending the stall. She took it and, dropping it into the deep pocket of her sleeve, gave him two very small coins in change, which he placed in Hiko's waiting hand very slowly and carefully, as though they might explode.
The boy asked quietly, "I can take this now? It is mine?"
The girl smiled and said, "Of course!"
Kenshin stood quite still for a moment, gazing at his prize, then took a deep breath and reached for Hiko's hand again.
"Ready to go home now?"
They made their way up the mountain in companionable silence, and the sun was low in the sky when they walked into the clearing.
Hiko busied himself putting away the day's purchases. Once, he stopped for a moment, watching out the open door as his apprentice ran along the river's bank, making his toy whir and flash in the long shadows, the pale face animated, the flaming hair catching the fading light.
That night, after they'd eaten and put away the dishes and washed their feet, Kenshin dressed for bed in his new, cloud-white yukata, and stood proudly before his master to show it off. Hiko looked up from where he sat on the wooden chest against the wall polishing his wakizashi, and took in the boy standing before him, wondering at the complexity of this "simple creature" he'd taken into his life. Things were working out differently from what he'd imagined.
Very 'different', indeed, my old friend…
Take today, for instance. The quicksilver changes in the kid's moods, his inexplicable reactions to perfectly ordinary questions and events. Hiko wondered, and not for the first time, if there were something defective in the kid's brain, something that would interfere with his training. Or that would make living with him intolerable. He decided to clear things up right away—he never wanted to endure a scene like that again!
"What did you think of the marketplace?"
A light went out in the boy's eyes, and he lowered his gaze from his master's face.
"Did you like it?"
A small pause. "Hai, shishou."
The man pressed. "You ran away from me."
The small cheeks reddened fiercely and a very small voice answered, "I'm sorry, shishou."
Hiko could feel the boy's spirit shrinking. He wasn't having that again. He reached out and gripped one thin arm, pulling the boy in to lean back against his chest. When he felt the tiny warmth between his knees, his other arm, seemingly of its own accord, circled itself gently around the thin torso. The rim of the boy's ear was cold against his cheek, and he spoke gently. "Did something frighten you?" He could feel the rumble of his voice against the boy's back.
"Was it because I shouted at you?" He's going to have to get used to that…
Kenshin twisted sideways to look his master in the face, finally startled into speech. "No, shishou! Nothing like that…"
Hike was surprisingly relieved at this answer. "What then?" He felt the tiny body tense, the bony ribs poking into his broad chest.
"I… I was afraid that you were—" More silence.
Like pulling teeth with this kid …
But with the patience of a fisherman playing his catch,"That I was what?"
The boy took a deep breath. "I was afraid you were going to trade me."
"Trade you?" The man was baffled.
"You know. For rice. Or for... something else." The boy's breathing was ragged now, and he no longer looked up, but busied himself with the tie on the front of his master's yukata. And it came tumbling out all in a strangled rush, "Then I watched you give the men those pieces of metal, and then they gave you the things you wanted, and then I thought that maybe you weren't going to give me away."
The boy stopped like he'd been hit and even his hands were very still now, still clutching the cotton belt. He seemed to be waiting. Waiting for something to happen. To him.
Hiko's heart nearly stopped with the realization of what he was hearing.
"You thought that you were… that I would barter you away?"
"Hai, shishou." The boy gulped. Hard. "Forgive me." For the second time today, he buried his face into the man's body, this time into the broad chest, muffling his next whispered words. "I don't want to leave, shishou. I want to... stay with you."
The feel of the hot tears seeping through the front of his shirt was almost more than the big man could bear. He squeezed shut his own stinging eyes and bent his big head over the small one.
Ah… Baka deshi.