The Forty-Eighth Ronin

By Francis Eaden




Frank Segreto looked out of his bedroom window in the Harbor Masterís apartment. The beautiful gaff-rigged sloop of Pieter van Decker was gone from the slip in the Pirateís Cove marina, which had been its home for the last four seasons. Frank had become a close friend of Pieterís ever since he acquired the dock next to his apartment four years before. He remembered as if it were yesterday. He had awakened at six in the morning and the custom-designed yacht that had come in during the night was already secured. The captain was sitting on the deck reading the paper that was delivered each morning by an enterprising newsboy that had a contract with the marina owners.

"Morning," Frank had said, amazed that a boat this size had been able to navigate the tricky channels of the marina and find its berth in the dead of night. He had never even heard the sound of an engine.

"Your crew still in the sack?"

Pieter van Decker looked up at him and smiled. "I donít carry a crew." He saw the puzzled expression on the Harbor Masterís face and added, "Thatís why I sail with only a single mast; the riggingís electronically controlled."

From his position on his apartment deck, Frank tried to locate the wire cables that must be present to accomplish this but wasnít able to see a thing. Even finding the electric connections couldnít explain how this size sloop could find its way through the crowded marina without a crew. It would have to have been totally noiseless or Frank Segreto would have heard it. This is what he was paid for, and he was a light sleeper.

"I guess youíve got some kind of new wireless control," Frank ventured, although he still didnít see how that could work with no special lines to the rigging.

Pieter van Decker removed his Ray Ban sunglasses and smiled up at the Harbor Master: "Something like that," he said, looking mildly amused.

Frank Segretoís interest in the sloop had been detoured by a sudden interest in the man. Captain Pieter van Decker, who had the physical and speech characteristics of a western European, had the eyes of an Asian.

"My father was Dutch and my mother, Japanese," Captain van Decker said anticipating Segretoís confusion. "Some say I have my fatherís body and my motherís soul."

This was the inauspicious beginning of a lasting friendship. All through that season and the succeeding ones, Frank Segreto and Pieter van Decker found that they had much in common. They both liked to play poker and golf, listen to music, and talk endlessly about the state of politics, morality, and the human condition. Once a week, they would spend a night out in one of the watering holes or restaurants in this exclusive Palm Beach neighborhood, and twice a week they played golf at one of the courses scattered along PGA Boulevard. Frank had taught him the game. Once, out of curiosity, they even made the eighty-mile trip to South Beach in Miami. They visited some of the most famous clubs on the strip and many of the young ladies they met made shameless approaches to van Decker, to whom they seemed very attracted. He exuded a confidence and a quiet charm that made each want to take him home. At the end of the night Frank Segreto and he would leave to go home alone. Frank wondered why he never seemed to be tempted by these offers of free sex, and God knows what else, but he was grateful for Pieterís decision to decline because he had never been included in the offers.

Their friendship grew and Frank instinctively never pursued the problem of how a single man could pilot a sailboat of the Kyudosí dimensions around a crowded marina, let alone on the open sea. In truth, he didnít want to know, because he sensed the answer might irreparably change their relationship. He did however ask Pieter about his boatís obviously Japanese name.

"Kyudo means the way of the bow," Pieter said. Then he smiled and explained that this reference was to the bow and arrow used in Japanese archery not to the bow of a ship. He said that archery in Japan is part of Zen Buddhism and is compared to "attempting to catch the wind in your hands."

"That might even be a good definition for sailing a boat," Segreto said.

Pieter van Decker smiled in agreement, and then he sat quietly recalling a moment that now seemed very important.

"Long ago, I loved a woman who was a kyudoka, one who practices kyudo." He hesitated as if not knowing how to proceed. He hadnít tried to talk about his personal life to anyone in a long time.

"Was she a professional?" Frank Segreto immediately realized the possible implications of his question. "I mean was she on a team of some kind?"

Pieter, startled by Frankís question, knew that he never should have begun this story. "She was a professional ____on a team; she was killed trying to protect the life of her ____." He searched for a proper word: "Employer," he finally said.

Frank wanted to hear more of this tragic love, but van Decker realized that he couldnít even remember her name;___ so many years ago. He feigned a headache and retired to his cabin for the rest of the day. In his reality, pleasant memories were like delicacies nevermore to be tasted.

Frank Segreto decided that this was another subject that he should avoid in the future. It occurred to him that he was beginning to acquire quite a list.

The months turned into years, and Frank looked forward to his friendís return every January. They always enjoyed seeing each other again, but Frank never again mentioned the mysterious lady who was an expert with the bow and arrow.

Nothing much changed over the years; that is until a month ago. Frank decided to treat Pieter to a night at Panama Hattieís, a swinging spot right on the Intercoastal Waterway, by the PGA bridge. They were featuring a popular reggae band and Pieter was a fan of Jimmy Buffet. More than a few nights over the years, they tried their hands at "wasting away again in Margaritaville" together. It was on one of those nights that Adrian Armitage entered their lives.

Armitage was the only son of one of the super rich that deigned to spend their lives in Palm Beach for the three mandatory winter months. He was a nasty person that used his fatherís money and influence to promote his own image as an international man of mystery. To insure his safety in this masquerade, a Japanese bodyguard, who could only be described as a tall fireplug, always accompanied him. The third member of his party was a gorgeous Japanese lady, in her early thirties, which he referred to as his "trophy geisha."

On this evening, Armitage and his companions arrived at the bar just when the band was taking their break. There were no empty stools, but the two men and a woman sitting next to Frank and Pieter vacated their seats to avoid the confrontation, which they knew was inevitable if they remained.

Armitage ordered a vodka martini, "shaken not stirred" for himself and "a grasshopper for the lady."

The bartender looked at the bodyguard who was called Sakada, but Armitage interrupted, "Nothing for him. Heís our designated driver," he said laughing. Sakada just looked at him, impassively.

Once settled in with his martini, Armitage looked toward Frank Segreto who was sitting next to his consort. "How are you guys doing?" he said grinning.

"Just fine, Mr. Armitage, Frank answered; he chose to be civil because the repulsive young manís father had controlling interest in the "Pirateís Cove" marina.

Pieter just looked across the bar to where a few young couples were dancing to recorded reggae.

"And your quiet friend?" Armitage said pointedly, looking at Pieter with displeasure.

"Heís fine; heís fine too," Frank answered.

"I want to hear it from him,"

Pieter looked into Armitageís eyes and then turned away, ignoring him.

Armitage turned toward his bodyguard to ensure he was close by. He was a little nervous because it had been a long time since he had been ignored in the town he considered his private playground.

Frank whispered to his friend: "Pieter please humor this son-of-a-bitch. Heís crazy."

Pieter, apparently unconcerned, continued to watch the dancers.

"Heís a visitor from out of the country," Frank explained, trying to avoid any further conflict. "Heís from Holland."

"Ah, that explains his ill manners. Heís one of those brilliant races that built their whole country below sea level." He said this loud enough for everybody in the bar to hear and then laughed uproariously at his own wit. Some of the more timid patrons joined in.

Pieter got off his stool and walked slowly toward Armitage who signaled his bodyguard to stand with him; this wasnít working the way he had expected.

Pieter approached until his face was very close. Armitage noticed for the first time that "the Dutchman" had the eyes of an Asian and that they were dark and deep.

"Youíre a stupid creature, Mr. Armitage. If you ever talk to me like this again, Iíll show these people the fool that you really are." Van Decker delivered this ultimatum in quiet and measured tones.

Sakada never saw his master take anything like this before and didnít know what to do. He moved around Armitage trying to get between him and his attacker. Pieter shifted his attention to the bodyguard and released a violent string of invectives in guttural Japanese.

Sakada placed his hands in a prayer mode and bowed, then backed away.

All Frank Segreto could say was, "Wow!"

"Letís go home, Frank," Pieter said. "Iíve had enough excitement for the night."

"Me too," Frank answered and then had to add, as they walked to the car: "Why did the fireplug back down? He was really afraid of you."

"I just reminded him of the behavior that was appropriate for him in this situation. Iíll explain later."

"Oh," Frank said, not having the vaguest idea of what he was talking about.

When they got back to the marina, Pieter invited his friend aboard the Kyudos for a nightcap. He set up two wine glasses and half filled them with Saki.

This wasnít Frankís favorite wine, but after the eveningís events anything alcoholic looked good; he downed it like a shot of whiskey. Even this didnít prepare him for what he was about to hear.

"Frank, I think I put you in a compromising position with an influential man, I owe you an apology and an explanation." Pieter poured Frank another glass of Saki, but this time he filled it. He poured himself a glass and then began his story:

"Even though Japan is now a leader in the modern world, there are things dating back hundreds of years that are still respected there. Iíve exposed you to a world you werenít meant to see. It could be dangerous for you, and the only way you can protect yourself is by understanding what I am.

"Iím sure youíve figured out that my ship doesnít have an engine nor electronically- controlled rigging. You also know that I couldnít sail the oceans of the world in a single-masted sloop for nine months a year without a crew. I appreciate that youíve always accepted me as a friend without questions. This kind of friendship is hard to find."

Pieter looked at Frank who was patiently waiting for him to continue. "You must try to believe that the story Iím going to tell is not a madmanís fantasy and that Iím not crazy"

"I can guarantee that I donít think youíre crazy," Frank answered.

Pieter smiled, "At least thatís half of what I asked. Now hereís the toughest part." He paused to make sure Frank Segreto was listening. "Frank, Iím not what I seem: I was born in Japan, in 1670, of a Japanese mother and a Dutch sea captain."

The expression on Frank Segretoís face reflected his initial shock, and then it returned to normal as he waited for the punch line to the joke. Pieter van Decker continued:

"This was in the reign of the Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi who owed his rise to power to a great Samurai general, Asano Naganori. The Shogun rewarded him by making him a Lord of the realm, a daimyo. My mother was Asanoís daughter and, herself, an accomplished Samurai warrior. My father was more than just a sea captain; he owned the only two ships from the west that were allowed into Japan during this period. He was rich and popular with the Japanese Royal Court because he supplied them with rare gifts and spices from Europe and the Indies. Thatís why he was allowed to marry a daimyoís daughter.

"My mother had me trained as a Samurai, and my father taught me everything he knew about sailing. By the time I was twenty, I was adept at both but, in truth, I was never comfortable in the complex rituals and dress of the Samurai. During this violent time, every Shogun and daimyo had a jonin living in his castle. Each jonin represented a particular ninja clan. These clans lived high in the mountain wilderness and answered to no one. The Samurai rulers eliminated any threats to their power by instilling fear in their enemies or by assassination. For this they used the ninja. The jonins were the negotiators for their clans, and once a price was set and a contract completed they would send word to their clan and the requested deed would be done. They rarely failed.

"The jonin in Asano Naganoriís court was Masaki Hotsumi. He was about five years older than I, and we became friends. I taught him about the Samurai code and he taught me the philosophy and the fighting techniques of the ninja. He eventually asked me to become his foster brother and part of his clan. My mother forbade it. She was proud of her pure Samurai heritage and looked down on the ninja as thieves and murderers. To ensure that I followed her wishes, she separated Masaki and me by hiring me out to another daimyo in a distant town. My new masterís name was Kira Yoshinaka and, at that time, he was a friend of Asano, my grandfather. I served in this position for three years and I saw the relationship between my motherís father and Kira turn bitter as they both competed for the favor of the Shogun. The disaster happened at a celebration in the Shogunís palace. Kira and Asano had both been drinking heavily, and they got in a heated argument. Asano, who had a very quick temper, drew his long sword and cut open Kiraís shirt from his neck to his navel, without touching his skin. It was a masterful stroke and, even though Kira was not physically hurt, it was forbidden to draw a sword in the Shogunís palace. The Shogun ordered Asano to slit his belly immediately, to commit seppuku. Of course, he did this and his property was given to Kira who dismissed all of Asanoís servants, including his Samurai. He could not trust us to be loyal to him, but he allowed my parents to continue to live in the palace.

"Samurai who were no longer employed were called ronin and had to hire themselves out to survive. They were not happy with this and decided to attack Kiraís palace and kill him and all living with him in the castle. I tried to talk them out of it pointing out that the Shogun made the rules, but they argued that Kira should not have dismissed them. I pleaded with them to spare the life of my mother and father. They refused and said that my obligation to my fellow Samurai was greater than any family ties. I tried to stop them, and the leader of the group drew his long sword and slammed it against the side of my head. When I recovered consciousness, they were gone and I was lying in a pool of blood on the stone floor. I had broken my Samurai code by not going with them. I was torn by my love for my parents and was grateful to Kira for allowing them to live in his castle, but I knew that it was too late to help either Kira or them.

"I struggled to my feet and found my ninja friend, Masaki, at my side."

"You must leave this place," he said. "After the Samurai kill Kira, they will come back and kill you. I heard them talk about this as I passed them on the road. You must come with me. You can do nothing here."

"We traveled into the mountains, and Masakiís family welcomed me. I had never thought about ninjaís having families before.

"Asanoís 47 ronin had attacked and looted Kiraís castle. They killed everyone and stole all they could carry. They also traveled up into the mountains, because they knew the Shogun would mount a tremendous force to punish them. They took over the castle of a retired daimyo, whose fortress was located on a high cliff surrounded by sheer vertical walls. Only one narrow path offered access to the top. This made it impossible even for the Shogun, with an army of Samurai, to capture it. Samurai warriors, with their bulky armor would have to walk that path two-by-two. Even an angry Shogun could see the impossibility of this and decided to leave the ronin alone for the time being.

"For over a year, I lived with Masackiís family, converting my Samurai skills to those of the ninja. I worked very hard because I planned to kill the ronin who had murdered my parents. I confronted them all and killed them in a fair fight.

"I had left the ninja camp in the dark of night. I didnít want them to go with me. I knew I would be a dead man, and I didnít want them to share my fate. No one can kill a Samurai, even bad ones, without the Shogunís permission. Within a week, I was captured and brought before the Shogun. He was going to have me slowly boiled in oil because he thought I was a rogue ninja until someone in the court recognized me and told him my story. He became sympathetic. He actually seemed pleased because it saved him the problem of sending good Samurai up the mountains to eliminate the bandit ronins. However, the Emperor, who was believed to be divine by the Japanese people, decided that I had to have a unique and everlasting punishment for my transgressions. This was the Edo period in Japan and there was great belief in the existence of demons, and these demons, like all beings, had to obey the will of the Emperor. I didnít know what he was going to do but, for the first time in my life, I was frightened. He went into a closed meeting with his priests and three days later, he returned to the courtroom. He told me that I was free to go but had to sail by the evening tide. He said that I could take one of my fatherís ships but no crew. I respectfully pointed out the ship was a four-masted, square-rigged Galleon that I couldnít possibly sail alone. He said, ĎThis is now written in the book of life and can not be changed.í Not being of a spiritual nature then, I didnít know what he meant, but everybody in the court covered their faces and backed out of the room.

"A squad of Samurai escorted me to the ship. To my amazement, the sails were unfurled, but it was standing perfectly still like a monument embedded in the sandy sea bottom of the harbor. It was immune to the motion of the water. I looked on every deck but found no one. The harbor bell signaled that the tide had reached its high, and the ship began to move. It made its way into the main channel leading to the open sea, and a heavy, silent fog wrapped itself around the ship.

"I finally understood what the Emperor meant when he said that I had to have a Ďunique and everlasting punishmentí for my crimes. I had been condemned to serve alone on this demon vessel until the end of time. Until that moment, I never thought about the horror of the eternal loneliness to which I was sentenced.

"Instinctively I ran to the Captainís cabin. I had to know more about my penalty. What would I eat and drink? Was there no escape, no end to my sentence? Would I never know the companionship of any other human?

"I found what I was looking for. An entry, addressed to me, was written on the first page of the log. I would only be at sea nine months out of the year. During this time, I did not need to eat or drink, and the dark power that sailed my ship would insure that I had no contact with any other living thing. During the months of January, February, and March, I could stay at any port of my choosing. While in port, I could live like any other human, but I could neither know love, nor experience any of the feelings of a living man. This brief return to life intensified my agony like no total isolation ever could. It is a constant reminder of what I have lost."

Captain van Decker poured himself another glass of wine and also filled Frankís glass. "Are you still with me, Frank?"

Segreto looked at his friend and was almost able to imagine him as a very old man. As much as his logical mind fought against his acceptance of this story, its complexity and detail, combined with the fact that the teller was a dear friend, made him try to believe. He took a swallow of his Saki:

"Pieter, Iím trying to understand what youíre telling me, and I want to believe, but I have to ask you to explain some things that donít fit into your story."

Pieter nodded acceptance of these terms.

"You said that the ship you were set adrift on was a four-masted, square-rigged Galleon, a boat that hasnít been around for a long time. And your current boat, the one weíre sitting on drinking Saki, is a modern, single-masted sloop with gaff-rigged sails."

Pieter poured him another glass of wine: "For just a moment, I want you to empty your mind of all that you know and all the things that you think exist in your world."

Frank started to argue the impossibility of such a task, but Pieter interrupted: "Close your eyes and put your hands over your face."

"Now count backwards from 10 to 1, and try not to think of anything else. Make your mind a blank screen."

Frank did as he was asked.

"Now open your eyes!"

Frank also did this and uttered a grunt of surprise. For a moment, he was convinced that he was sitting on the deck of a 17th century Galleon. He automatically rubbed his eyes and the vision slowly faded. He was back home on the deck of the sloop. His mind couldnít logically sustain the vision of the 400-year-old ship, but he was finally convinced of the truth of Pieterís tale.

After Segreto recovered, he said, "Pieter, I know another story, a myth, that was supposed to happen at the same time as yours. Itís about another Dutch captain. His name was van der Decken, and he was trying to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. He hit a fierce storm that drove his ship onto the rocks. As he was sinking, he screamed out a curse to God, ĎI will round this Cape even if I have to keep sailing until doomsday.í Evidently, he got his wish, because a lot of sailors over the last four hundred years claimed that they saw Captain van der Deckenís ship called The Flying Dutchman out on the open sea."

Frank paused for a moment, trying to word his request carefully. "You got to admit that this is a hell of a coincidence, Pieter; even your names are almost the same. Itís hard to believe that these two stories happened about the same time, unless God had declared open season on Dutch sea captains in 1670. Can you give me a little help with this?"

"I know the story, Frank," Pieter said. "Thereís no coincidence; Iím the only Dutchman who has been cursed to sail my ship until doomsday. Stories like this change in the retelling and begin to have a life of their own, depending on the teller. Over the years, Iíve heard many versions of The Flying Dutchman."

"I think itís time we both hit the sack," Pieter said. He helped his friend up on to the dock and watched as he carefully negotiated his way to his apartment door.

It was 7 oíclock the next morning that Pieter van Decker answered the frantic knock on his cabin door. Frank Segreto was standing there trying to support the almost limp body of the Japanese girl that Adrian Armitage had referred to as his "trophy geisha." Pieter took her from Frankís arms and carried her effortlessly to his bed. She had been beaten severely in both the face and the body. Pieter checked her vital signs and decided that, since she didnít seem to have a concussion, it was best that she be allowed to sleep. While she slept, they carefully undressed her and examined her wounds. She had been punched in the face numerous times and her body was covered with lacerations that could only be caused by a whip. They bathed her, put an antibiotic cream on her wounds, and let her sleep. It was four days before she fully awoke. She then told them her name, Chen Yun, and a story that was difficult to believe that had happened in Palm Beach County, Florida in 2003. Adrian Armitage had been furious at his bodyguard, Sakada, for backing down from Pieter on the evening they met at Panama Hattieís. The reason Sakada gave was because he realized that Pieter was Samurai and that his family in Japan had served them for hundreds of years. Armitage went to his wardrobe where he stored many costumes and artifacts that he used to convince guests he really was an international adventurer. He found a Samurai suit of armor among his warrior collection and a long sword, a Katana. He then backed a terrified Sakada into a corner and killed him.

Chen Yun had tried to stop him but received the beating for her efforts. Adrian, exhausted, then retired to his bedroom. She was going to call the police, but thought that they wouldnít believe her because of Adrianís political connections. She then thought of the only person she ever saw who had not been afraid of her master, and Sakada had said he was Samurai. She took a cab to Panama Hattieís, and found out his name was Pieter Van Decker and that he was living in the Pirateís Cove. Frank Segreto discovered her wandering from boat to boat trying to locate him, before she collapsed on the dock.

After telling her story, Chen Yun fell asleep again.

"Itís going to be a few weeks before this child recovers completely," Frank said. "Somebody ought to terminate that bastard, Armitage" He poured himself a rum from a bottle on the table and tried to lift himself out of his depression. He didnít know where Pieter van Decker had gone.

When Adrian Armitage woke up he felt good. He had worn his Samurai armor during his nap. It was a little stiff and uncomfortable, but it gave him a feeling of invulnerability. He was convinced that being Samurai was his destiny. He thought about killing Sakada, and

wished that he had set up a camcorder so he could have watched himself in action. The next time he would. He was so lost in his reverie that he didnít notice a figure in black standing in the corner of the room. Finally he saw it, and it was moving toward him in a peculiar sideways cross-step that the ninja called yoko-aruki. The figure was draped completely in black from a loose wrapping around the head to a progressive tightening around the waist and legs.

"I recognize you. You are a ninja: a sneak thief; coward; assassin." Armitage drew his long sword from its scabbard. His heart was racing in exhilaration. "Do you think you can defeat a Samurai face-to-face?" He swung his sword in a wide arc aimed for Pieterís head. Pieter drew from his sash a kusarigama, a sickle attached to a weighted length of chain. The weighted chain wrapped around the sword and deftly diverted Armitageís swing. The energy of the swing pulled the sickle, guided by Pieter, across the side of Adrian Armitageís neck, ripping through his carotid artery.

"Die ronin," the Ninja said softly. "This is for Sakada."

* * *

Frank Segreto took one last look at the empty boat slip. Pieter van Decker must have left in the middle of the night; it was very foggy. Frank would love to have seen it. He wondered if he had closed his eyes and counted backwards from ten, he would have seen the Galleon making its way through the inlet with "The Flying Dutchman" scrawled across its stern.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Francis Eaden

Bio: After serving in the US Air Force, I became senior scientist for a major pharmaceutical company located in New York City. In a second career, I became a teacher and the Director of Special Education for a New Jersey school district. Two previous short stories, "Selkie in Amber" and "The Garden on the Edge of Time" have appeared in past issues of Aphelion. I have also written poetry which can be found under Francis Eaden in www.google.com and a novel, "Side Effect" published by Earthling Press.

E-mail: Pateaden@aol.com

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