Shike – Day 224 of 306

Yerubutsu’s grin was like that of a cannibal demon in a Buddhist painting of hell. “We are fully able to protect you, Yukio-san. You are our guest. We wish to free you from care.”

As the vast crowd drifted away from the cremation site, leaving the final burial of Hidehira’s ashes to the priests of the Chusonji, Yukio and Jebu walked by themselves towards the mountains to the north.

“They want to free me from care for ever,” Yukio said wryly.

“Yerubutsu has no love for you, but he would not go against his father’s last wish,” said Jebu. His words rang hollow in his own ears.

“The past is the past and the present is the present,” Yukio said, repeating the old samurai saying. “I’m finished, Jebu-san. Yerubutsu knows it as well as I do. Hideyori will have my head if he has to knock down these mountains to get to me.”

Jebu thought of his own father, relentlessly tracked down by Genghis Khan’s agent, Arghun, and he felt overwhelmed by a wave of love for the small, frail-looking man beside whom he had fought for over twenty years.

“I will never desert you, Yukio.”

“I will need you at the end, Jebu-san.”

It was beginning to snow. Helmets of white formed on the dark boulders that littered the plain. Yukio pulled his thin white cloak tighter around him. They still had a long walk over the stormy ground to the castle they had been given by Lord Hidehira as a refuge. Since Yukio’s arrival in Oshu ten days ago, just before Lord Hidehira’s final illness, Yerubutsu had been promising to furnish Yukio and his party with horses, but the horses never came. Yerubutsu and his family rode away from Hidehira’s funeral, back to Hiraizumi; Jebu and Yukio had to walk. The road they followed had been cleared by an age-old succession of travellers moving rocks and gravel to one side. The path rose into bare, black hills and began to twist and turn. New-fallen snow partly obscured the way. The cold bit Jebu’s toes through his deerskin boots.

“Yerubutsu means to betray me,” said Yukio.

“Then let’s get away from here, Yukio-san.”

Yukio shook his head. “The priests say, live as if you were already dead. I’ve been doing that ever since Hideyori answered my plea for friendship by sending assassins. Where could I fly to? North to Hokkaido, to live among the hairy barbarians? Back to China, to throw myself on the mercy of Kublai Khan? No, Jebu, some ways of living are so wretched that death is clearly better. I’ve lived like a hunted animal most of my life. That was all right when I was young and had hopes of a great future for myself and for the Sunrise Land. Hideyori has closed the door to all hope. I am too old to take up the fight again.”

“You’re only thirty-eight, Yukio-san.”

“For a samurai, that is the beginning of old age. Soon my body will start to fail me. And even now I have an old man’s awareness of how foolish were the visions of my younger self. Men say my victories over the Takashi were brilliant. All I ever achieved with those brilliant victories has been to inflict a far worse tyranny than Sogamori’s upon my country, a tyranny that may well last a thousand years. I fought to restore the glory and authority of the Emperor, and now the Emperor has no more importance than a doll. Somewhere in heaven or in hell Sogamori and Kiyosi are laughing at me. I want to join them and laugh along with them, Jebu-san, at the futility of human hope.”

The wind stung Jebu’s face with sharp, bitter-cold particles of ice and snow. “What of your wife and children? If you stay here and fight, they will surely die when you die.” Yukio’s father-in-law had sent Yukio’s family over in a palanquin from his estate. Yukio’s son and daughter had rarely seen their father and had no idea who he was.

“Remember what happened to the women and children of the Takashi?” Yukio said. “I will stay with my wife and babies. I will not abandon them to be buried alive.”

The narrow path climbed the side of a cliff. Half-blinded by the huge white flakes blowing into their faces, they walked single file, Jebu in the lead, one hand on the rock wall. Whenever the wind died down, they could see the yellow, flickering glow of lanterns higher up in the mountains. They came to a cleft that offered shelter and pressed themselves into it to rest.

“You are a warrior without peer, the bravest man and the noblest soul in all the Sunrise Land,” Jebu said. “You ought to be seated in glory at the feet of the Emperor. You, and not Hideyori, that sly, self-deluded coward, should hold the reins of power. The Order taught me to expect nothing from life but a violent death. Even so, I find what is happening to you impossible to understand.”

Long ago some pious traveller had carved deep in the cleft an image of a standing Buddha, his hand raised in blessing. With a smile, Yukio bowed towards the carving.

“If you Zinja believed in karma, as good Buddhists do, you would realize that in a past life I must have done something so evil that my present troubles are only just payment for it.”

“People believe in karma because they can’t find any other idea that makes sense of life,” Jebu said.

“Life does not make sense,” said Yukio, staring impassively into the storm. “The Buddha taught that life is suffering. The First Noble Truth. We suffer because we can’t understand life. Injury and agony fall upon the virtuous and the wicked alike, without rhyme or reason. It is not only I who must fail and die. Hideyori will end in a grave just as surely. In the end life not only defeats us, it even defeats our efforts to understand it. We die as ignorant as when we were born.” Yukio slapped Jebu on the shoulder. “Come on. It would just add to the general senselessness if we froze to death out here.”

They trudged on, kicking up puffs of snow. Now the storm was dying down, and the lanterns above the log wall of the castle were steadily visible. Small though it was, the castle was well placed for defence. It was set on a platform of stone overlooking a deep gorge, and the cliffs behind it were absolutely vertical. The path approaching it was so narrow, it could be defended even by the handful of men Yukio had with him. In the dim past this had been the stronghold of a tribe of barbarians of a race that no longer existed. Later, before the Northern Fujiwara unified the land, a bandit hideaway had occupied this eyrie. Lord Hidehira had known what he was doing when he turned the place over to Yukio just before he fell ill.

Now Yukio and Jebu were close enough to see a figure in a grey fur cloak and hood watching them from the guard tower overlooking the gate. It was Yukio’s wife, Mirusu, who had set the lanterns in the tower to guide them home. Jebu’s feet were numb. His heart felt numb as well. A Zinja, he reminded himself, does not care whether he lives or dies. That was what troubled him. He no longer believed that he should not care. He wanted to die caring.


  1. William Lomonyang Identiconcomment_author_IP, $comment->comment_author); }else{echo $gravatar_link;}}*/ ?>

    William Lomonyang wrote:

    I did not have time to read this book because i was still young and then also It got lost due to insecurity in the place by then.

    I wish I could get one to confirm what I listened from my elder brother whom I was hearing from.

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