Shike – Day 194 of 306

Sogamori’s eyes widened. He had been unconscious ever since the evacuation of Heian Kyo and had been unaware of the military situation for many days before that. Now he asked Taitaro quick, probing questions. He learned that the Takashi had lost the capital, that he was in a Buddhist temple south of Takatsuki, and that he was in the power of the Muratomo. His reaction was calm and courageous. Jebu could not help but feel admiration. Sogamori had taken the news just as a Zinja would.

“Why don’t you kill me?” he asked, staring into Taitaro’s eyes. Taitaro quoted The Zinja Manual: “When it is not necessary to do a thing, it is necessary not to do it.”

“True, I am about to die,” Sogamori said, “but the Takashi will win this war. The whole realm supports us. We have the Emperor. Hideyoni has only a rabble of country samurai, and Yukio’s army are barbarous foreigners. We will move to the west where we are strongest. All the great samurai families will rally to us against the rebels. My grandson is the Heavenly Sovereign, and my great-grandson and all my descendants will sit on the Imperial throne until the end of time. In this world I have nothing left to desire. My only regret is that I cannot see the head of Yukio.”

Taitaro sighed. “Lord Sogamori, do you want to go into the Void shouting lies to deafen yourself or do you want to be liberated from illusion?”

“You Zinja speak of insight,” said Sogamori. “Can one who is not a Zinja achieve it?”

“You have your last chance now to experience insight in this life,” said Taitaro.

“Who will I be in my next life? Do you know, Zinja?”

“We do not claim to know what comes after death.”

“A year ago a saintly monk came to me and told me he had been to the kingdom of the dead in a dream. Emma-O, the king of the underworld, told him I am the reincarnation of the famous priest Jie Sojo, who lived three hundred years ago. Emma-O said that even my evil karma will help mankind. If so, I am no ordinary man, and my future life will not be ordinary.”

“The future does not exist,” said Taitaro. “There is only the present. While I am with you, let me help you.”

“I am not afraid to die,” Sogamori whispered.

“I do not seek merely to free you from fear,” said Taitaro. “I seek to make you an infant again, stripped of possessions, rank, kindred, knowledge, past, future, even of language itself. So that you will go into the Void as a baby goes to its mother’s arms.”

Sogamori is the man who killed my mother, Jebu thought, but he was more interested in what Taitaro was saying than in his hatred of the Takashi chieftain.

“You are not Sogamori,” Taitaro went on. “You must give up Sogamori, forget him. Sogamori was a festival mask you wore, but the dance is over now.”

“I shall take another mask for another dance.” Sogamori’s voice seemed fainter.

Taitaro leaned forward and stared intently into Sogamori’s eyes. “There is no other dance. There was no dance before this. All time was, is and will be now, and you have always worn this mask, but the mask was never you. Relinquish it. Now.” He snapped his fingers over Sogamori’s face, a loud, startling sound, like the cracking of a bone.

There was a silence, and then Sogamori said, “I see.”

“What do you see?” There was eagerness in the way Taitaro crouched over him.

“I see Sogamori. I see him as a young man shooting his arrows at the warrior monks of Todaiji—at their very shrine—without fear of the gods. I see him with his son Kiyosi subduing the enemies of the Emperor. I see the Son of Heaven proclaiming him chancellor, even the Fujiwara bowing before him. I see him closing the circle that was opened when his ancestor, Emperor Kammy, was on the throne. Sogamori, Takashi no Sogamori.”

“Not Sogamori,” said Taitaro softly. “Not Takashi.”

“Not Takashi?” Sogamori whispered plaintively. The voice was weaker still. The words slurred. Jebu knew that Sogamori was making his last slide down into fever, delirium and death. “Not even that? If I am not a Takashi, I am nothing. If I am nothing then I am—” There was a long silence as Sogamori searched Taitaro’s face, stared up into the shadows of the temple hall, peered at smiling Kwannon.

“Everything,” Sogamori said, and closed his eyes.

Taitaro, Jebu and the three other monks sat cross-legged and waited. From outside the temple came the cries of Mongol soldiers playing some game of chance. In the late afternoon, during the hour of the ape, Takashi no Sogamori died. Taitaro laid his hand on the broad, immobile chest, now cool to the touch, and nodded to Jebu. He began removing the needles from Sogamori’s body. The two Buddhist priests intoned prayers, while the monk Suzuki led Taitaro to a chest in the corner of the temple, containing Sogamori’s remaining possessions. The priests had rescued it from the carriage in which Sogamori had gone on his last journey. There were gold and silver cups and bowls, jade statues, bolts of exquisite silk, scroll paintings and several magnificent swords. Jebu looked for the famous Kogarasu, but it was not there. There was another sword, though, that Jebu recognized. It was very long, the blade straight in the style of hundreds of years ago. The hilt was ornamented with a coiling silver dragon on a black-lacquered background.

“This is Higekiri, the Beard Cutter,” he told Taitaro. “The oldest sword of the Muratomo. I last saw it in Domei’s hand, nearly twenty years ago, when he sent me with his son Hideyori to Kamakura. The Takashi captured him soon after that, and Sogamori must have kept the sword ever since. Yukio will be delighted to see Higekiri again.” Followed by the three priests carrying the chest, Jebu and Taitaro walked to the temple entrance, where Torluk waited for them.

“What did you do, holy man? Poison him with those needles and that drink?”

Taitaro shook his head. “Those things were to wake him up and ease his pain, not kill him.”

“I’ll never understand shamans and monks,” Torluk growled. “Well, he’s dead now and I can take his head to Lord Yukio.”

Without a word, Taitaro went back into the temple. He picked up the candles on the altar one after the other and tossed them at the paper screens and wooden walls, while the Buddhist priests screamed and Torluk bellowed at him to stop. Soon the whole interior was a whirlwind of flame and smoke.

Torluk’s face was red with rage. “If you weren’t a man of religion and your son weren’t Lord Yukio’s companion, I’d kill you, old man.”

“I felt that Sogamori’s body deserved to be burned, not mutilated,” said Taitaro calmly.

“You’ve burnt down the temple,” one of the priests screamed. “You’re no holy man. You’re a devil.” Taitaro gave Jebu a meaningful look.

“Sogamori built hundreds of temples,” Taitaro told the priest. “The Lord Buddha and the Goddess Kwannon can spare one for him.”

“We might have had some reward if we could have brought Sogamori’s head to Yukio,” Torluk grumbled. “Now we’ll get nothing.”

“Yukio doesn’t need to see Sogamori’s head,” said Jebu. “The news that we captured him and he died will please Yukio well enough.” He held up Higekiri. “He will surely reward those involved in the return of this sword to his family.”

“I will never understand what you did,” Jebu said later, as he and his father rode north along the Shujaku. Even though they could not see Heian Kyo, a grey cloud to the north told them it was still smouldering.

“An inner voice told me I should not let Sogamori be tortured, killed and mutilated,” said Taitaro. “He seems a monster to us now, a man who destroyed his country, but perhaps it is as he told us; even his evil karma will benefit mankind. Perhaps, indeed, he was no ordinary person. There are moments in my life when our notions of right and wrong, our customs, common sense itself, must be set aside and I must act in a strange way that seems right, though I can see no reason for it. This encounter with Sogamori was such a moment. If you would understand it better, spend more time with the Jewel.”

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