Shike – Day 253 of 306

“The night grew darker and colder around us. Abbot Taitaro explained to me that the cold was helpful. It slowed down the life processes in the shiké’s body so that he did not need as much strength to survive, and it would keep his many wounds from becoming diseased. He said that a slowing of heart and breathing and all other bodily activities was taught to all Zinja and was a state into which they could put themselves at need, sheltering their life energy within a seemingly dead body, as a fire may hide itself in the heart of a blackened coal. We wrapped the shiké’s body in robes and made a pallet of spears and quilts to carry him.

“Before we left the ravine we found a dead Mongol with reddish hair who was about the shiké’s size, and we dressed him in the shiké’s armour. The abbot said that Lord Hideyori’s men would undoubtedly be looking for proof that Shiké Jebu was dead, but to them, one Mongol would look much like another. By the time the head was carried to Lord Hideyori, it would have deteriorated so much it would be impossible to say whose it was. Thus, the head that your father identified as Shiké Jebu’s was that of some unknown Mongol.”

“Was the other head truly that of Yukio?”

“Yes, sad to say. Before the Mongols left the scene of the battle they managed to save Lord Yukio’s head from the burning building in which he had committed seppuku.”

“Why did the Mongols leave so hastily?”

“Their scouts told them Lord Yerubutsu’s army was on its way to attack them and had already engaged their rearguard. Arghun didn’t hesitate for a moment, and the Mongols dashed off without even taking time to collect the heads they had been sent to get. Lord Hideyori outsmarted himself. He arranged for Arghun to kill Yukio and then for Yerubutsu to attack Arghun, after which his Kamakura army would destroy Yerubutsu. Yerubutsu’s attack on Arghun did not leave Arghun time to take Shiké Jebu’s head, and it gave Abbot Taitaro and me time to rescue the shiké. The Oshu men fought and pursued the Mongols all that night, and by the time they came to the scene of the battle the abbot and I had left with the shiké’s body. They sent what they thought were the right heads to Kamakura, for which Lord Hideyori rewarded them by invading and conquering their country.

“It was a dreadful journey we made through the mountains of Oshu. Our destination was the Black Bear Temple of the Zinja, near Oma on the northernmost tip of our island of Honshu. For many days we trudged through snow-covered valleys between black crags, clambered over boulders as big as the Imperial Palace. We tied one end of the shiké’s litter to the abbot’s horse and we took turns walking with the other end. The shiké managed to live through all this. It’s the nearest thing to a miracle I’ve ever seen. The Zinja medicines the old abbot carried helped, of course. His potions fed that tiny flame of life in Master Jebu as oil feeds a lamp. And they helped us, too. A certain powder we took with our meals of dried fish and rice cakes gave us new strength to push on. That powder even made me cheerful, despite the tragedy I had witnessed and the ordeal we were going through. If I could get some of that powder for my shipyard workers, I could build a navy as big as the Great Khan’s in a year.

“At last we came to a family of woodcutters, and the abbot paid the eldest son to ride ahead to the Black Bear Temple for help. Two days later we were met on the road by a party of Zinja monks with horses and a palanquin, and the following day, we were at the temple. I was so exhausted I had even stopped worrying about whether Shiké Jebu would live or die.

“He was still fearfully close to death. Our long trek through those cold northern mountains, with winter coming on, had nearly killed him. After they put him to bed in the monastery they removed all the arrows from his body, cleaned and dressed all his wounds with powders and papers and ointments and cotton cloths, and kept murmuring invocations over him. The abbot explained to me that these prayers would penetrate to his deepest self, which never sleeps, and call forth the shiké’s inner energies to speed his recovery. Along with these words, of course, went potions and such nourishment as they could get down his throat. But after a few days at the monastery he developed a fever, and we almost lost him again. Abbot Taitaro and I took turns sitting with him day and night. I watched the fever burn his flesh away until it seemed there would be nothing left of him but a skeleton. After several sleepless days and nights for us, his fever began to cool. It was then I noticed that all the red hairs had fallen out of his head and beard, and those that were left were quite white.

“He lay unconscious at that temple for more than a month. The heavy snows came and buried all the temple buildings. When I was not at his bedside, which is where I spent most of my waking hours, I was talking with the Zinja monks. I learned that among the brothers of his Order, even though the Zinja discourage hero worship, the shiké is thought of as the greatest warrior of these times.”

How strange that Hideyori falls from a horse and dies, Taniko thought, while Jebu is riddled with arrows, falls from a cliff and lives. He’s alive, he’s alive, her heartbeats seemed to shout, as Moko told his story.

“Shiké Jebu started to stir restlessly one evening, an hour or so after the monastery cook had managed to get an entire bowlful of soup, drop by drop, down his throat. I watched him eagerly. His eyes opened. He looked at me and I started to weep for joy. I wanted to jump up and call Abbot Taitaro and the other monks, but I couldn’t bear to leave the room for an instant. I waved my hands helplessly and jumped up and down and stammered. He stared at me, puzzled. I realized that his last memory was of Mongol arrows tearing into his body on a cliff in Oshu. He might be thinking that this was Paradise and that the Buddha bore a most peculiar resemblance to his old servant Moko.

“At last he spoke—just one sentence. ‘Will I never find peace?’ Then he fell back on his quilt and closed his eyes again.

“Now I ran for Abbot Taitaro. He and I sat there until dawn, waiting, but he said nothing more that night. The following day he woke again and greeted me and his foster father and asked where he was and how he got there. He wept a long time for Lord Yukio. The old abbot told him they would hide him, because the Shogun would certainly want him dead. I expected him to react with rage at the mention of Lord Hideyori but all he said was that Muratomo no Hideyori was the most tormented man he had ever known.”

How true, thought Taniko. And how he tormented everyone around him. But if Jebu did not feel any hatred for Hideyori, why had he come to the Hachiman shrine?

“Now that Shiké Jebu was on the mend, I was anxious to get back to Kamakura. But by then the coast was surrounded by ice and the snow made the roads impassable, so I stayed and watched him grow stronger and learned more about the Zinja. Abbot Taitaro brought him a strange crystal with an intricate design carved upon it, which they call the Jewel of Life and Death. The shiké spent hours staring into it in a silence so profound an earthquake wouldn’t have jolted him out of it. He let me look at it a few times, but all it did was hurt my eyes. That sort of otherworldly thing is not for me.

“As spring approached, the shiké’s strength returned and he was able to take walks in the temple grounds. I wondered what he would do now. Years ago the Zinja had assigned him to serve Lord Yukio, and he had spent more than half his life at Yukio’s side. What would help him survive this loss? I could not stay to find out. I had fulfilled a duty to Shiké Jebu. Now I had obligations to others. For months my family and those who worked with me in the boatyard had no word whether I was alive or dead. Time I returned to them. I said goodbye to Shiké Jebu, Abbot Taitaro and the other monks, and eventually made my way home.

“Now I have told you everything I know, my lady. I don’t know where the shiké is now. I have no idea how he came to be at the Hachiman shrine when his lordship the Shogun paid his unlucky visit there. I do know that when I left Shiké Jebu he seemed calm enough, except for the words he spoke when he first awakened—‘Will I never find peace?’ Those words have haunted me. Was he—is he—truly so unhappy that he longs for death? I had always thought he was living just as he wanted to live, a privilege few men enjoy.”

Of course he is unhappy, Taniko thought. She ached to see him again and hold him in her arms. I know why he is so sad, and perhaps in all this world I alone can help him to be happy.

“One thing you haven’t told me, Moko,” she said with a smile. “Did he speak of me at all?”

Moko hesitated. “He wanted to know if you were well. If you had kept the boy Sametono with you.”

“That’s not what I want to know, Moko. How did he seem to—to feel about me?”

Moko looked at her sadly. “I really couldn’t say, my lady.”

“Please tell me what you think.”

Moko sighed. “My lady, he particularly charged me not to tell you that he is alive.”

“Why would he make you promise such a cruel thing?”

“Must I tell you, my lady?” Moko seemed to be in acute pain. “Don’t do this to me, Moko.” She was almost screaming at him and she had raised her voice only once or twice before in her life, even under the most trying circumstances.

Moko squeezed his eyes shut in anguish. “My lady, he said, ‘She has tortured me too long. May I leave this world before I see her again.'” If Moko had driven a dagger into her stomach he could not have hurt her more. She covered her face with her sleeve and wept bitterly. Moko sat sad and silent, unable to offer comfort.

At last, when her sobs had died down he said, “Now you have heard the worst, my lady. You cannot suffer any more than you are suffering now.”

She looked into those strange, inquisitive eyes that seemed to be staring everywhere but at her. “You’re right, Moko-san. Now that I’ve heard the worst, things can only get better. And you can help. There is something only you of all the people in the world can do for me.”

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