Tree of the Dead
In a hotel room in Kyoto a young man was sitting by a table, head nodding, drained after the long day. He would have liked to go to sleep, but there was an emptiness within him, and he didn't want to turn of the light and be left alone in the dark with his thoughts. He knew he wouldn't sleep, anyway.
The hotel room was very white and clean and modern, as was the whole hotel. Certainly his hosts had not spared on the expenses, but in truth he would have preferred something a little more modest, a little shabbier. A place where one would feel at home and not be afraid to touch anything, to leave a dirty finger print on the shining white surface.
It had been a long day. Waking up early, traveling to Kyoto, spending the day at the festival, playing teaching games, giving speeches, playing some more, accepting congratulations, avoiding fangirls (since when did go players have fan clubs, anyway?), and then, again, playing yet some more.
He didn't want to be in Kyoto in the first place. But it had been hard to decline the invitation as he hadn't been able to state a sensible reason why he didn't want to go. In truth, it might have been easier had he not been in Touya's company at the moment when they had asked him.
"Why not, Shindou? Do you have plans?"
There had been nothing he could say. He had just stared at his rival, trying to come up with an excuse – usually he was good with excuses, wasn't he? – but this time his mind had drawn a blank.
"The kids would love you," Touya had gone on. "You…you're good with children, aren't you?"
And in the end, he had agreed. He had remembered Sai's face on that day they had gone to the children's go tournament, long ago. Sai would have loved this chance to see so many young, aspiring players, to encourage them onward on the path of go. So, there he was, in a spotless hotel room in Kyoto, when he should have been in Innoshima.
He straightened his back slowly, wondered what to do. Going to sleep was out of question. He did have his go books, and a new manga. There was television in the room, and he had been told he could use the movie channel if he wanted to.
There was a block of the hotel's paper on the table, next to it a pen with the hotel's logo. He took the pen in his hand, doodled circles on the paper. Circles, spirals, wavy lines, his hand moving without thought. It drew half a circle, a U-shape, and he stopped, staring at it. Then his hand drew two dots for the eyes, a line for the mouth and another for the nose, and a ridiculous tall hat above it all. A few wavy lines to represent long flowing hair.
He paused again, watching his drawing – no, drawing was too grand a word for the scrawl. He snorted at himself, amused despite his apathy.
"Hi Sai," he muttered. "Long time no see. How you doing? Me, I'm going to challenge for the Tengen title. What do you think about that? Missed my chance with the Honinbou, sorry to say, but… I guess any title's fine, it's not like there's anything wrong with getting the Tengen…" He paused and gave a little laugh. "Touya'd tell me not to talk like I'd already won the title. And I guess you'd say the same, right? But I feel good about it; I think I just might take it. But… I'd have been the youngest Honinbou ever. Wouldn't that have been cool?"
He fell silent for a moment, stared at the doodle on the paper. "Sai?" he whispered. "Sorry I didn't come to Innoshima this year. But there's this go festival for kids they decided to have on Children's Day, and they wanted me to be a guest of honor, and… I just couldn't decline, okay? But… it's still May 5th, for a while… why don't you drop by here?"
The doodle said nothing. The silence of the hotel room was deep and unbroken, and after spending yet a moment staring at his scrawling he ripped the paper angrily off and threw it toward the garbage bin, missing.
A moment he stared darkly after the crumpled paper, turned then away and leaned against the table, lowering his head on his arms.
He had thought he was okay with Sai's disappearance these days. And he was, for most of the time. In truth, days might pass and he didn't even think of his old companion – time truly did heal all wounds. With the passing years he had also come to realize one thing: they had both been selfish. He, taking Sai for granted, never truly listening to his worries, but just as much Sai, pushing himself into his life without a second thought. Even so, he would not have hesitated for a splitsecond to get Sai back, had it only been possible.
He was still holding the pen in his hand. He pushed it softly against his left palm and drew there a small circle, remembering the days of the pro exam, when he had stamped his hand with the winning mark. He did not color this circle black. No matter how many games and titles he would win, he had still lost something.
He let the pen fall from his hand on the board and stood slowly up. He shot one short glance at the bed and turned then around. Grasping his jacket on the way he walked out.
Fact number one, he didn't know Kyoto. Fact number two, it was late. Keeping these two things in mind, he told himself, he should not go anywhere far. Just… a little walk to clear his head, then he'd go back and head to bed. And if he just kept on walking straight forward, even he would not be able to get lost.
He set on, strolling down the street hands in his pockets, mind wandering. He didn't pay much attention to his surroundings, or to the people he passed. It was a nice, warm night, and he would have been fine even without his jacket. He looked up and saw that the moon was full, but it was mostly covered with clouds, and its light drowned into the bright lights of the city. Dropping his gaze back to the ground he walked on, trying not to think of anything.
He wasn't sure how long he had walked when he stopped, wondering if he should turn back. He looked ahead and frowned: the street disappeared among trees. A park? He didn't remember there had been one this close to the hotel – but then again, he hadn't read the map that carefully. A walk through the park might be nice… though of course, he couldn't know what kind of a park this was, in night time. Maybe he should ask someone, or check if anyone else was walking through it.
Looking around, he saw to his surprise that he was alone on the street. That was quite strange; it wasn't yet that late. Perhaps this was a sign for him to turn back. After all, he would yet meet some Kyoto pros next morning before returning home, so getting some sleep wouldn't be a bad idea.
But surely it wouldn't hurt checking out the place. He'd take a look, and turn back then.
It was a very peculiar park to be found in middle of Kyoto. The street turned into a path, and the path faded gradually away. The trees grew wild, following no order, and he could see no sign that anyone would have ever been tending them.
"This isn't a park, this is a forest," he muttered to himself. A natural park? Funny no one had mentioned this. But it was a nice place – cool, and the air smelled earthy and clear, as if after rain. The trees grew high around him, and the place was quiet; so quiet, in fact, that it was hard to believe it was in middle of a great metropolis.
He stopped, once again deciding to turn back (he could always come back next day), but right then something caught his eyes, something that glistened ahead among the trees. Curiosity arousing, he walked on and to his surprise found himself at the bank of a river. He stopped, blinking. He was sure there had been no rivers this close to the hotel. Had he really read the map that carelessly?
He knelt down by the river, watched it unbelieving. Its water was dark, flowing by him in silence, and he almost wanted to bend down and dip his hand in, just to make sure it was real and not an illusion. The moon was coming out of clouds, its reflection on the water shivering and malformed, and he breathed in the silence, suddenly unwilling to move, feeling he was at the edge of understanding something fundamental.
Finally he stood up, straightened his back, eyes still on the moon's shadow on the waves. Yes, he would definitely have to examine this place thoroughly next day, once he'd be done with the games. He could always take a later train back home.
He turned, took a step, and stopped, startled. There was a clearing in the forest, and in the middle of it stood a tree the like of which he had never seen. It wasn't that it would have been impossibly huge, though it certainly was big enough, reaching above the other trees of the forest, but there was something in it that even from a distance spoke to him of old age. Slowly he walked to the tree, almost hesitantly placed his hand on its bark, looking up in wonder. The bark was rough under his hand, at places peeling off, and he could see that there were scars in the tree, big ones, as if some branches had fallen, or perhaps been cut off. Some of the existing branches seemed dead, bare crooked limbs stretching from the tree, but higher up the leaves were green and full of life.
"How old can a tree be?" he wondered aloud, softly caressing the bark.
Had this tree stood there a thousand years ago?
His hand stopped, rested against the tree. What if, once, ages ago, Sai had walked by this tree, alive, and stopped to wonder at it as he did now, for even then, it had had to be old…
Impossible thought. He let his hand fall back and turned to go. He didn't know how old trees could grow, and in the end, even if one could be a thousand years old, what was the chance Sai would have been walking around just there? …and even if he had, what of it? A thousand years was a thousand years, there couldn't be a longer distance between them.
He walked away, and a bird started singing.
He had never heard birdsong so sorrowful. It went straight through his heart and made him miss a step, and he stumbled. Turning to look back he tried to see the bird, but couldn't spot it. It had to be somewhere up in the tree, though.
What was it, a nightingale? He couldn't tell. He did know a sparrow from a crow, and a crow from a swan, but that was it. But whatever it was, its song was beautiful. Unable to leave yet, he sat down by the tree to listen.
It was so peaceful, so restful just to sit there, the bird's mournful song in his ears. He closed his eyes and leaned against the tree, listening. He wouldn't have believed a bird could sound so sad. How Sai would have enjoyed this… he had always appreciated beauty in all its forms.
A sigh escaped him. How strange life was. If Sai had not faced such an unhappy fate, if he had not died a tragic death and turned into a ghost, he would not be there right now, sitting under a strange tree in a strange forest, listening to a strange bird. He would not be the challenger in a title match. He would… what would he be, anyway? Nothing much, he feared. And so, he was building his life on the ruins that were left of Sai's.
The birdsong grew fainter, like a distant lullaby hummed by a loving mother. A mother, who had always nagged about his grades, worried about him and his future, and had only recently began to relax, finally believing he was doing alright in the life he had chosen.
In the life Sai had shown him.
He thought of Sai, and of the bird singing its sad lullaby, and the two merged into one in his mind, following some strange dreamy logic. "Don't… don't be so sad," he muttered, head nodding, and suddenly his eyes snapped open. Had he been about to fall asleep? Not good. He really should go back now.
He looked up, and it took his sleepy mind a moment to realize there was something strange in the view. He blinked, astonished. There were stars twinkling among the tree branches, stars brighter than he had ever seen. Could one see stars this much better in Kyoto than in Tokyo? Then again, it was really dark, if the moon hadn't been full he would have hardly seen anything.
He stood up, confused. Before he could decide what to do he realized he wasn't alone anymore. Someone was standing by the riverside, watching him. Someone so awfully familiar it twisted his heart…
"Sai?" he whispered, and the moonlight illuminated the familiar widening eyes.
"You… know me?" the other said, and that voice almost made him cry.
"I," he said, but couldn't go on. He wanted to rush forward and jump on this apparition's – on Sai's – neck, but the strangeness of the situation stopped him. Was he dreaming? There were times when he could tell he was seeing a dream, but this time he wasn't sure. Everything was just so strange.
"Yeah," he whispered finally. "I know you."
"How?" He could see how the white fingers tightened nervously around a fan. "Are you… are you the spirit of this place?"
Sai's voice was so full of respectful awe that Hikaru couldn't help laughing out loud. "Me? Hardly. I'm just… just an ordinary mortal. My name's Hikaru." He didn't know what was going on, but, he figured, maybe he should just play along. "You, you're a very good go player, aren't you?"
Sai's face brightened and he seemed to forget his fear of the otherworldly. "Oh, is that why you know me? Are you a go player too?"
"Yeah. I…" he paused, realizing he didn't know what to say.
Sai had no such problems. "Have you traveled from far away? Your clothes are very peculiar. Not… not that there would be anything wrong with them, of course," he added hastily. "They're very, very… interesting," he concluded a little faintly, giving a weird look at Hikaru's bright yellow t-shirt with the print GO GO GO, and an even longer look at the bangs he was still bleaching.
"Yeah, well, not that far, really. That is, depends how you see it…" His voice fadedagain away.
Sai was watching the tree behind his back. "When I saw you sitting by this tree, I thought you had to be its spirit. If you are a stranger here, do you know of this tree? Did you come here to see it?"
"No…" Hikaru looked at the tree too. "I just happened to spot it. It's quite impressive, isn't it?"
Sai was nodding. "They say this tree stands between this world and the next, that sometimes you can hear a lovely bird singing on its branches, and on such a night, you might be able to meet the dead…" he paused suddenly, eyes widening. "You're not… dead, are you?" he whispered fervently.
"Me?" Hikaru almost laughed again. "No, I'm not. Totally flesh and blood. But hey, if you're so worried about meeting the dead, why did you come here on your own, at night?"
"I…" Sai glanced away, giving an embarrassed little laugh. "Actually, I was hoping I might meet someone."
"Someone dead?" Hikaru gave him a curious look. Sai nodded.
"My mother. I wanted to tell her the news…"
Sai straightened his back, a proud smile on his face. Only now Hikaru realized how young he seemed, younger than at the time they had come to know each other.
"Today, I was appointed as the junior go teacher to his majesty the emperor," Sai declared proudly.
"What?" Hikaru gave a start. "That… that's! I mean, that's great, but…"
"But?" Sai looked at him curiously. "Why are you so shocked? Didn't you just say you know I'm a good player? I thought you recognized me because you knew of my appointment."
"Yes, I mean, no, but, that is… it's just that you seem so young, and…"
"That is what my father said too," Sai said. "You're too you young, it's too much, too soon. I guess fathers will always worry. I'm afraid I'll always be too young for him…" There was a smile on his lips as he spoke. "Neither of you should worry. I'll be fine."
"Yes, but…" Hikaru paused. What was he going to say? Warn Sai of his rival's plots? What good would it do? This had to, in the end, be just a dream…
"Would you play a game with me?" he asked suddenly.
If Sai was surprised by his sudden request, he didn't show it. He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I would love to, but we have no board here. Perhaps if you would come to my mansion…"
"We can play blind go," Hikaru put in.
"Blind go? You mean, without a board? Intriguing." Sai gave him a bright smile. "Let us play, then."
They sat on the grassy ground underneath the great tree. Hikaru refused any handicap stones. He played black, and he wondered a moment if he should introduce the komi rule to Sai, but figured then a small handicap against his teacher wouldn't hurt.
The game proceeded more evenly than he would have thought. Then again, he reminded himself, this Sai was hardly over twenty years old yet. He had not spent the many years playing with Shuusaku, nor played the dozens of games against the strongest players in the world on the internet. He, on the other hand, was now much better player than he had been last time he had played with Sai. Playing black without komi, Hikaru realized he actually did have upper hand.
Still, it was Sai he was playing against. His opponent gave him a look he knew so very well, and he knew the game would not be easily won.
He saw the board in his mind's eye, and a white stone appeared on it. He closed his eyes, concentrating on that move. He knew Sai. There had to be meaning behind it, something that wasn't obvious on the surface. A smile tugged his lips. A dream or not, he was grateful of this game. He had often wondered what it would be like to play against Sai as an equal, and though this wasn't quite what he had dreamed of, it was better than nothing.
He opened his eyes, almost expecting to see the board in front of him. "14-3," he said, and Sai smiled a little, a tight, knowing smile, appreciating his move.
It was long into the game that Hikaru realized he heard the bird again. He looked up, listening. The sorrowful song carried in the air, so ethereal he couldn't be quite sure if he heard it or just imagined everything. He glanced at Sai, but saw that his opponent was completely focused on the game and apparently hadn't noticed anything, and not wanting to distract him he kept quiet about the bird.
They played on, quietly voicing their moves, and the bird's song echoed in his ears throughout the game. Once the final move was announced they sat quietly a long moment, both going through the game in their minds, eyes closed.
A draw. Hikaru wasn't sure if this made him happy or disappointed. Finally he opened his eyes.
"It's harder to win, playing white," he said.
"Is it?" Sai blinked, and thought a moment. "I have never lost playing black," he said then, thoughtfully. "How did I never come to think of it?"
"Thank you for the game," Hikaru said very quietly, and Sai bowed his head at him.
"Thank you for the game. I enjoyed it greatly. Do you think… I could play with you again some day?"
Hikaru was quiet a long while. "Perhaps," he finally said. "But it will be a long time from now."
"Oh." Sai seemed a little disappointed.
Hikaru looked up, suddenly restless. The song of the bird had grown louder in his ears. "I… I think I should go…" He glanced up at the tree. He still didn't understand what was happening, but he knew, deep in his guts, that whatever it was, it was coming to an end.
"It has been a pleasure to meet you, Hikaru-sama," Sai said, solemnly. "I do hope we can meet again some day."
"Yeah." Hikaru shot him a bleak smile. "Me too. But…" He looked at Sai, a tight feeling in his throat. "I'm going to miss you," he whispered, and Sai blinked, seemingly at a loss. Hikaru shook his head. "Never mind me. I just…"I just have so much I'd like to tell you, he thought. But that would be pointless, you wouldn't understand what I'm talking about…His eyes stopped on the fan in Sai's hands, and once again he remembered the dream he had had years earlier, where Sai had given him his fan. A dream that had felt truer than this, and still been just a dream. "Never mind," he repeated with a sigh. "I'm being silly, that's all."
For once, Sai didn't seem to know what to say. His eyes followed Hikaru's gaze, and he fingered his fan hesitantly. Then he looked up, as if making up his mind. "Take this, as a remembrance of me and this night," he said, and offered the fan to Hikaru.
He stared at the fan, frozen. The dream will end when I take it, flashed in his mind, and he almost snorted at the ridiculousness of the thought. Sai kept on offering him the fan, firm and insistent, and in the end he finally grasped it, fingers closing hesitantly around it. "Thank you," he said quietly. "I… I have nothing to give you."
Sai smiled at him. "I am happy to have the memory of this game."
Holding the fan gingerly in his hands Hikaru hesitated. He swallowed and licked his lips, giving Sai an uncertain glance. There wasn't much time left. A dream or no, he couldn't let Sai walk unsuspecting into danger. He didn't know if he could change anything, or what consequences there could be if he did, but he had to try. "Your… new position," he said slowly. "You should be careful."
Sai gave him a surprised look. "What do you mean?"
"Just that… everyone's not as happy as you about it. Someone… might see you as a threat."
"Do you mean Akitada-sama?" Sai looked at him levelly. "I have noticed that he doesn't seem to like me much, though I don't know why. But certainly we will come along once we learn to know each other. After all, we're both…"
"No you won't," Hikaru cut him off more sternly than he meant. "That is, eh…" he stammered a little when Sai looked at him, confused. "There's one thing I should tell you. If… if you're challenged to defend your position, don't be startled if your opponent cheats. Yeah, I know." He smiled at Sai's horrified expression. "It is a shocking thought, isn't it? But just let it pass as if you'd noticed nothing. You can beat him, if you just don't let him unnerve yourself. And afterward you can tell him what a pathetic creature he is, unable to win even if he cheats."
"You… wh-what are you?" Sai stammered in a hoarse whisper. "Are you… is this… divination? A message from the gods?"
"No." Hikaru gave a short laugh. "Just a message from a friend you don't yet have. But… take care, okay?" He smiled thinly at Sai and realized his friend was turning transparent. The stars in the sky had disappeared. "Take care," he whispered again, and woke up leaning against the tree.
So. He had fallen asleep. A moment he sat there, listening quietly to the singing bird. At least that had been real. He looked up and saw that clouds had dispersed and he could see the moon on the sky, and a couple of the brightest stars, too. But their light was nothing compared to the moon and the stars he remembered seeing just a moment ago.
He stood up gingerly, sighing, and stretched his back. A fitting dream for May 5th. One last time he placed his hand on the tree's rough bark, caressed it softly. He kept on thinking he should come back next day, but at the same time he wondered if he ever truly would.
Something white caught his attention on the ground, something he at first took for a piece of garbage. He bent down to pick it up – it was a fan, a white paper fan. Opening it he saw on it old calligraphy he couldn't read.
He turned the fan around in his hands. Had some earlier visitor dropped it there? That had to be it, anything else was just impossible. It was quite an old fan, though – or if not old, at least old-fashioned in its style and make, and for all he knew (he was hardly an expert) a fan like it could have been used in the Heian age.
Not knowing what to think he closed the fan. At the same moment the bird's song was cut off in mid-tone. Startled, he looked up, just in time to see something bright and golden fly away. He watched after it, quiet, unmoving, holding the fan in his hands, and thought of the seemingly unbreakable but now so blurred boundary between the possible and impossible.
Shaking his head a little he released the breath he had been holding. "Fly high, Sai, wherever you are," he muttered, still watching after the disappeared bird, and with a tight hold of the fan he started walking out of the forest and back into the real world, wondering if the reality waiting for him was still the same he had left behind back when he entered this forest.
A/N: I got the idea for this fic of CMX's song Karsikkopuu. Karsikkopuu is a tree for the dead, I'm not sure how to best translate it... It's a tree that has been pruned, in order to commemorate a dead person. A family might have had a tree of its own, where one branch was cut always when someone was buried. I'll post this fic on AO3 too, you can read there my translation of the lyrics, if you want.
The oldest trees in the world, btw, are about 5000 years old.