Author's Note: Ahoy, first story in this category. I had never seen the film until this year (I was a chibi back then) and I was marvelled at it. And so, this spawns a fanfiction piece. Enjoy!^^
My time with these people doesn't seem to end... not that I want it to, though. On one hand, I miss the hectic urban cores, I miss feeling my own culture enveloping me, I miss sensing and perceiving things, smells and tastes from our Western world that were so familiar to me and that I sometimes rejected. On the other, I have grown accustomed to the Japanese culture, their language, their ambient. There's something unusual in this remote village, something that either I cannot comprehend or I haven't yet opened my eyes to. And though I may forever be a stranger to them, a gaijin, I dare say I could fit in... if I can learn more about them. There is still much I have to understand; perhaps I speak sooner than I should. Nevertheless, every day brings a new discovery, a new lesson, a new word, a new scenery; every day, I feel better than the previous day, I feel at ease. That doesn't mean it all goes away overnight, but it seems this place is doing some good to me. I'm still troubled by my nightmares, in which I always see the same scenery.
Conversations with Katsumoto are more than frequent now; I seldom see a day reach its end without having shared from minutes to hours with this man. From every sentence, I learn something new; apparently, he has found a way to incorporate lessons and teachings into his words, a way that renders me unable to tell them apart. More and more he asks me about my world, more and more he becomes interested in my customs, and it is through his interest that I constantly notice how different yet how alike we both are. We are both intrigued by each other and their worlds, we continue to explore them every day, and he seems to grasps concepts of my world more easily than I grasp those of his own. I believe we're nearing the time when our most popular and perhaps renowned custom takes place: Christmas. It'd feel odd to explain what it means and the reason behind it, but I'm willing to give it a try, even if it's the smallest of them. Also, perhaps I can be allowed and exception and I may be able to celebrate it in the most surreptitious of ways.
I have also attempted to grasp a concept of the way of the samurai, the Bushido: many have been the times when I have tried to meditate. Surprisingly, since I started seeking my own place within this unusual society, I have adopted many wonts the people have. When it comes to mediation, I have always searched for a tranquil place among the almost infinite trees of the forest, and I have yet to fail in finding it. I look for peace and calm -disregarding the company of my "bodyguard"- and though I don't obtain it as much as I would like, I still get my share. Little by little, the storm inside me falls dormant. This place is powerful enough to have brought me to a state of admiration towards it. I somehow... pray for this to last a few moments longer, but I know it is impossible. Sooner or later, things will change.
x x x
I was once more beset by a sleepless night, ridden of bad dreams, unrest and awe. I couldn't close my eyes without seeing myself among the dreadful scenery at the Washita river; they were images it'd be impossible to get rid of unless I had a bullet through my head. Tossing and turning in attempts to find a decently comfortable position didn't help me calm down and I eventually stopped when I realized how silent the house was save for the rustle of my clothes. That, and how in vain it all proved to be. I then stood up in silence, stretched and slid the door open enough so that I could sneak past it without any sound. I walked as stealthily as I could, with the notion of a pair of eyes staring right at the back of my head. Though Taka was a light sleeper, either she was soundly asleep this time or she was indeed awake and did not pay any heed to me; she knew my night strolls were frequent. And so, this was another one of them.
The same moment I stepped foot on the tatami outside, I realized I hadn't picked up anything to protect myself against winter nights' scathing cold. In resignation, I started walking towards the training field where I had been initiated into kenjutsu, the art of the sword, by my very reluctant teacher, Ujio. He is close to ruthless with the bokken and though nevertheless fair, I lacked the chances to recover from my aches and bruises after every practice. Mostly it was my persistence and his hardness, not a very recommendable combination when your mind starts telling you to end the pain. For me, learning as much as I could about the Bushido was important, despite I lacked years of training and wisdom, and I also discussed it with Nobutada sometimes, though he excels at the way of the bow, or kyūdō. As I thought of this, I let my mind wander and think about his words: "No mind."
It was true. The times I had gone into battle, I had thought whilst fighting, carefully planning my moves and course of action against my opponents so as to avoid death or fatal injuries. The samurai, on the other hand, seemed to rely on instinct and perception, having sharpened their senses to extents I could've never imagined. It also seemed they relied on their sword and its accuracy and sharpness. It was like the sword itself guided the warrior: the only thing he had to do was put his trust on the sword and on his own skills to handle it. No skill, no balance. I couldn't describe it yet.
I stared at the valley below, covered in a thick layer of snow; at the winding road that led deeper into the valley, at the green scenery before me. Contrary to what I had been used to seeing in the West, like hectic streets and tall buildings and an excessive amount of people that wandered through the avenues and streets at night, there were merely five to seven villagers around completing -or perhaps starting- whatever task they had set their eyes on. I sighed, then was forced to draw in a long and slow breath to try loosening the knot on my gut. There were so many things roaming my mind that I found it impossible to put them into order, so I walked away and treaded uphill, headed for the path that led out of the village.
At my first destination, I found the person who I was least expecting to see: Higen. I stopped on my tracks and bowed, not before noticing a neatly folded garment in his arms, and then the youngster imitated my action. Despite being a young boy, perhaps no older than fourteen, I could barely read his expression: I doubted whether it was worry or distrust that which was etched across his features. Hesitant, and making use of my little knowledge of Japanese grammar and vocabulary, I asked,
"Nani o shite iru desu ka, Higen-san?" I had to admit my pronunciation still needed to be worked on, so I was surprised that Higen understood me.
"Aruguren-san wa uchi no naka ni imasen deshita," Higen told me, something I took my time to understand. "Dakara..."
For some reason I couldn't make out, I had the feeling that the boy was somehow uneasy when around me and in situations like that one, so I pushed no further. I wondered if he had indeed become worried about me and had left his bed just to look for me; I had already spent almost three months among them, still not enough time for them to trust me entirely. Instead, I smirked and remained looking at him. Higen seemed to snap out of some reverie, because he quickly bowed once more and offered me what he had in his hands. I held it in front of me: it was the haori I was given early in winter, a garment I kept stashed in a place only I knew of. Then, it struck me: if that was the case, how come he'd found it? Then again, it was his house; no wonder he knew it like the back of his hand.
"Anata no haori o mottekimashita," he claimed, his tone somehow nervous.
"Dômo," I said, dipping my head at him. I allowed myself to be comical with him this time. "Kedo, hitsuyō dewa nai." I crouched in front of him, tilting my head in a questioning manner, and I was glad Higen caught my hint. He smiled lightly and imitated my expression.
"Hontô ni?" he asked me, both of us noticing how my hands were shaking. It was freezing out there and Higen didn't seem to notice despite he was wearing 'night-clothes' or a yukata, or so he had told me once. Dismissing his good-humor but not making it disappear, I slipped on the haori and immediately shivered, much to Higen's amusement.
"Kaerinasai, Higen. Osoi da," I told him, not unkindly. I wasn't the one to take up a fatherly role for him and Magojiro, neither I was the most appropriate candidate, but I sensed they were in need of someone else aside their mother. We all got along well so far but despite that hunch I had, I was no more than a friend to them, and like such I considered myself.
"Mōsugu ni ikimasu," I replied. Higen bowed once more and briskly made his way home as I followed him with my eyes. Perhaps I wouldn't be returning as soon as he was expecting, perhaps I wouldn't even go back till morning, but I didn't know yet. For starters, I crossed my arms and tucked my hands beneath them as I resumed my walk towards the path. What small glimpse I got of it helped me see it was covered with frost, the frozen plants glistening under the moonlight. I wasn't very keen of all poetry-related things -if photography was one of them, that is- but I wished I had a camera on me. I was oblivious to what a photographer's job was, but it would've been worth a try.
I strolled alone for what it seemed hours, revisiting places where I had been few times, enveloped by a strange sense of eerie stillness. The only sounds I was able to hear was the snow crunching under my sandals and my slow breathing, which made me pick up another sound close to me, very similar to crunching snow, and I wasn't surprised when I stopped and the footsteps followed suit.
"How long have you been following me?" I asked to the person behind me. I turned and found myself face-to-face with the man I was least expecting to see out of bed.
"You could say I have been observing you, but your words are also correct," said Katsumoto. There was always this tinge of amusement and interest in his voice whenever he talked to me, as if he was waiting for me to make a mistake so that he could find his chance to correct it. Perhaps it was the same with me.
"What should I say about that?" I remarked, half a smile on my face.
Then I bowed, my arms firm against my sides, and stood straight. He merely dipped his head at me and neared my position. For a moment I remained silent, clearly noticing how intently he was studying me, actions at which I made no comments. I would say I was like a brand new toy, one that had been considered dangerous for a very long time. His face suddenly changed, his eyes gleaming in a way I hadn't seen before.
"Sanpo shimashō ka?"
It was then that I knew why the sudden change in his expression. My mind went blank, I didn't know what to say at that question since its meaning was unknown to me. Something about 'doing' clicked, but the phrase was impossible to understand given my slack grasp on the language. Katsumoto's features creased slightly as he smiled at me, contemplating my puzzled and confused look. He gestured forward with his hand, making me understand that which he had asked me. We started walking in silence until I inquired,
"What did you ask me back there?"
"If you wanted to go on a stroll, nothing more," Katsumoto replied, simple. He then said, "I was hoping you'd understand, but it seems you're only aware of the basic concepts."
"I'm afraid so," I admitted. "I'm not a linguist, so I don't have a lot of skill to adapt to new languages. Still, I have to say that once I get used to it, it's going with the flow and talking. Nobutada sometimes helps with my... education," I said, making emphasis on 'education' air-quoting.
"And I trust it is going well so far?"
"Steady, yes." I arched an eyebrow. "Why the sudden interest on my well-being?" I asked, half-incredulous.
"Why, you are our guest, of course," Katsumoto said, looking at me this time. I shook my head.
"Nah, I'm no guest. I'm a mere gaijin here who-"
"-is trying to make his own room among us, correct?" he completed for me, a ghost of a smile across his face. "Gaijin or not, you are adapting well. Do not dismiss your efforts, for they are impossible to hide. I see you trying every day; why would you have lifted up a bokken against Ujio if you didn't want to learn? I believe you have found a reason to join us."
"Society-wise, you say?" I asked, and Katsumoto nodded. "Perhaps I have, I don't know yet. I don't know if it's something I haven't opened my eyes to or something I can't understand, but I feel compelled to. It's not just because of what I feel, but of what I need: I wouldn't have understood a single word of one of Ujio-san's fighting lessons if it wasn't for my need to understand."
"I may find my place in here, maybe not. Time will tell," I said in the end, "but for now, I want to keep on learning. There's not a single day when I haven't discovered something new."
"As it usually happens when you face new cultures," Katsumoto agreed as I looked down at the ground. It reminded me of his situation.
"I suppose it happens the same with you?"
He smiled. "It does. I know all we have talked about in our conversations is only a small part of what your world is made of, and my interest is still piqued."
I nodded, silent. "So is mine," I then said, "because there's something I have to know, or be aware of at least. I don't suppose I'll understand it immediately."
"What's that you want to know?" Katsumoto asked, slowing down the pace. I thought my words carefully; even I doubted I'd manage to get the question out of my mind without using the correct words.
"It's about something Nobutada once told me when training," I began. "He slightly told me off for having too many things in mind, like watching my sword, my enemy and the people around me. Eventually, in his own way, he told me I had no reason to care about such things, as if they were that which made me lose my focus."
"You wonder how is it that samurai fight in that case, yes?" Katsumoto inquired, still amused. It was incredible that out of such a little explanation he could make out all that was roaming my mind. But the stranger here was me, not him, so whatever questions I had, I was sure he had had them too.
"Do you read minds?" I joked, looking up at him with a light smile.
"You have the questions every young samurai has, captain, so you're predictable," he said casually.
"I never doubted that," I admitted. "I was once told that a samurai's sword was his soul, and I can't help but wonder if it's instinct and perception what you fight with. I've seen how a samurai's skills are honed every day, but it doesn't seem paying attention to what's around you is something to have in mind."
We were already walking down the slope that led to the temple and the scenery, to say the least, was splendid. I left my parents' farm when I was seventeen and during my childhood, I had witnessed how the environment around us changed every winter when the first snows fell. For a moment I thought of my last winter there, when I had gone trekking one Sunday morning and I didn't return until the next. I had known many sceneries and peaceful spots around the mountains, but none could compare to this.
Katsumoto gradually stopped; I followed suit, then he looked up at the frozen trees. "I take it you've seen a ying-yang amulet some time?"
"A few," I said, frowning, "only in illustrations."
"Sometimes," Katsumoto began, "the amulets are divided into both halves, the black and the white, and each one is given to people who are close to each other, be it by marriage or friendship. Do you know what happens when you join both halves again?"
"They form one again," I replied without thinking, knowing that it was an obvious question. But perhaps he was looking for obvious answers; I was convinced that this slow way of reasoning was for me to reach some kind of conclusion.
"That is exactly what it is between a samurai and his sword," he said. "Unlike you might have thought, a sword and its wielder don't work separately. When both are still, the connection is severed, but when they fight, they work as one." Katsumoto looked at me, his dark gaze intense and piercing, somehow scolding. "That is not what you do when fighting, is it?"
I lowered my head and looked at the snow, then slowly nodded. "No mind," I uttered like at the beginning of every kendo practice. "I can't quite understand yet, though."
"You still have a lot of time left here," said Katsumoto. "I've seen you're a fast learner, but you mustn't rush it. Not everything is learnt overnight."
I remained thinking about what Katsumoto had said but as I reasoned, I felt sleep taking over once more. Last day's practice had been long, intense and restless, not to mention the practices with Nakao which left me with more bruises and aches that I would like. I remembered that Nobutada and Higen had also been there, and that I had also gotten beaten up because of my lack of focus. Though I could sense I was getting better after each day, I also felt I was one step behind everyone, even the non-initiated to Bushido.
"Your sword is not merely a tool," Katsumoto told me, bringing me back to reality. That possibly summed up many of my reasonings and made a lot of other doubts disappear, but then I wondered...
"And when you take a life, you yourself take it and not just your weapon?" I asked aloud. "Is that what it's all about?" It was a frightening thought in itself, but also comforting. The reason why was yet unknown to me.
"When you take a life, you must have a reason to do so," said Katsumoto. I went stiff, having been reminded of the many entries I had written in my notebook about senseless campaigns against the Indians. The first one that inevitably came to mind was the one at the Washita river. Katsumoto had already asked about them, but not so indirectly.
"You've kept reading about the Blackfeet?"
"Blackfeet?" Katsumoto echoed.
"The Indians," I said, smirking. "You already know I once killed without a reason, and not just once maybe, but that is just a small part of what's happened."
"I will leave that topic for another conversation," Katsumoto claimed, dipping his head at me. I frowned yet again, surprised and suspicious, but I had to agree: not even I would've been able to tell him about all I'd done through the years.
I didn't know how long I had been wandering around, but I decided it was time to return. After bowing to Katsumoto in farewell, I walked back to the village and once 'home', I returned to my room and laid down again, staring at the ceiling as I mused upon everything Katsumoto and I had discussed. It felt impossible for me to understand; perhaps I was just being too headstrong about it for now. I wasn't too patient myself, but it was through persistence and patience itself that I was learning.
Months went by since that conversation, and day by day I kept looking for the meaning behind Katsumoto's metaphors, looking everywhere I could: in my lessons, in the village around me, in the environment, even in the people that talked to me once in a while. Step by step I found it, though I knew I was still far away from fully understanding. 'No skill, no balance; no skill, no balance'... That could've very well be my catchphrase, considering I repeated it continuously.
In spring, I understood what it all meant.
In one of my morning kendo practices, I was beat up by Ujio once more, who finished me with nothing more than swift and almost effortless moves and feints. But then, at the third strike, something clicked, like an alarm going off inside my mind, and there it was again: "No mind". I concentrated. I saw what that connection was between samurai and blade; I could see it in Ujio's eyes. He was determined to win, perhaps even kill me with a simple bokken, but the heart of the matter was that he would do it along his bokken, his bokken and his spirit combined. Whilst I thought with my mind, Ujio thought with his sword, his spirit. No wonder he beat me up the first times.
But then, I could see everything perfectly and thanks to that, we ended up in a draw. I couldn't bear the look of surprise across his features, perhaps even one of respect, but I soon knew that this was one of my many breakthroughs, even the first one after months of learning. I had finally understood that connection; that was what fighting as a samurai was about. Not entirely, but a small part of the Bushido. Finally, my ying and my yang were united as one. But it wasn't comparing the ying with my mind and the yang with my sword, as I once reasoned, but there was a hidden part that acted as a missing link, one that I had discarded many other times.
It was my mind, my body and my sword.
My walk down the path had just begun.
A/N: So, how was it? I hope it wasn't bad for the first time, but that's up to you to say. There are more coming! xD
Reviews are appreciated!^^