by Jay Hill
In spirit form, Miyabe sailed up the trail ahead of the rabbit, stopping suddenly and materializing just a few feet in front of the frightened creature. Seeing the large man ambling from side to side in the path ahead, the desperate animal turned and darted back in the other direction, weaving in and out of tiny tufts of grass as it went.
At the other end of the pathway, Shirasawa spread the ghostly folds of her kimono to receive the little quarry. Miyabe smiled at the intense look on Shirasawa's face, the determination written across her wrinkled brow. He found her irresistible in moments like this.
A stretch of silver cloud slipped in front of the moon, leaving the rabbit thumping in darkness along the edge of the meadow. When the small animal was just a few feet away, Shirasawa shifted form and tried to snare the little thing in her silk hem, but transformed a fraction of a second too late. The wary rodent passed through the smoky tendrils of shimmering fabric and skittered down the trail behind her. Shirasawa cursed as she watched its cotton tail bounce away through her open legs.
"You will never catch a rabbit, if you can't sense its course," Miyabe chided her with a knowing smile.
"I just want to hold one," Shirasawa sighed, "And ruffle its fluffy ears. Not every rabbit in the forest will outsmart me. I promise you that!"
He laughed at his half-wife's determination, then spied a bend in the tall grass up ahead, and vanished.
Becoming a mere wisp of shadow, Miyabe soared through the air over the bounding creature. In an instant, his body became flesh again, his arm reached down and Miyabe stood up, clutching the tiny creature by the nape of its neck. "Got you, little one," he said to the trembling animal. "Don't be afraid. Shira only wants to pet you."
With another short flicker, he returned to the maple grove and handed her the rabbit gently.
"Oh Miyabe, you caught one." The little thing relished the lighter grip, yet still tried to hide in the folds of her gown. "He's so soft," she said. Miyabe grinned again, slowly shaking his head at her.
Behind the long line of trees, the horizon brightened with the first bright purple hints of sunrise. The leaves and limbs around them tossed in the cool morning wind. Miyabe wrapped his arms around Shirasawa and the trembling rabbit, enclosing them in the brace of his chest. The very next night he would go to war, and the thought of leaving Shirasawa and the maple grove tempered his mood. He pushed the notion from his conscious thoughts, trying to concentrate on the minutes at hand rather than think of the nights he would spend away. However, the attempt at redirection proved futile. Shirasawa looked up and glimpsed the weight in Miyabe's eyes, saw the pale light spreading across the eastern tree line behind his wide shoulders. She did not want him to go to war either, didn't even want there to be a war. It had ruined their wedding celebration and all of her plans. She tried not to think of it either, not during their last moments together. Another small pant of wind stirred through the stand of trees, pricking a chill along the soft pale flesh of her arms.
"This war will not last forever," Miyabe offered, but it was no comfort. For all his years of training, he could not guess how the war would turn, whether it would end quickly or rage for seasons. He looked at his half-wife, then grinned at the bright orange sun. With a long sigh, Shirasawa pressed her face into the fold of Miyabe's arms and accepted the widening glimmer of dawn.
As the first golden rays crested the line of trees at the edge of the horizon, the two spirits touched lips, giving each other only the smallest hint of a kiss, then faded from their embrace. Shirasawa freed the tiny white rabbit and returned to the trunk of the maple tree that held her true form. Miyabe's long limbs rustled her bright red leaves and he winked before transforming into the great wide bough, standing watch beside her.
The dark forest paths at the edge of the maple grove were well known to all of the tree spirits. It was an ominous place filled with tormented souls who flew in the shadows and wasted the blood of deer and wolves. Willow tendrils drifted on fetid breezes, always grabbing, always probing. The trails winding through the overgrown boughs were covered with sap and moss, and in the black gloom, the streams had swollen, gone stagnant and turned to thick bogs. Once the hollows bordering the light woods had been a mystical place, known for strange magic and powerful healing, now it teemed with twisted chestnuts, scarred elms and bent sycamores. Now the willows surrounded everything, forming a malevolent border that blocked the hollows from the light of the greater woods.
During one long autumn, many of the younger willows chose to linger in the darker places, learning and sharing odd spells. These spirits marched in the blue shadows of their sylvan halls and recruited from whatever vines and trees they encountered, slaying any who would not submit. Over time, they pressed their will on the poisoned chestnuts and sycamores, and the resulting alliance left the ways of bushido, the code of honor for all samurai. Together these new, savage ronin used their powers against the worlds of daylight and humankind. The evil willow spirits reached out to human women and caressed their long hair and supple skin. They stole from the cities of men and kidnapped human children to torment in their black recesses.
Around this time, a great warrior spirit rose from among the willows and defeated many of his brothers, returning the rogue clans to years of honorable leadership. Always bearing an ancient lantern, he led many of his generation out of darkness and back into the shared places of the forest. The green scroll, the first of the three great scrolls was written to detail the willows' turn from the ways of bushido, their attempts to walk among the world of men and women, and their wild affairs during the in-between hours when both men and spirits walk freely in the forests. It also recorded The Lantern Willow's fearless efforts to prevent the degradation.
Had he been younger and stronger, The Lantern Willow could have kept the willow saplings from leaving the border hollows and pursuing the women and children of the local villages a second time, but it was not the time of the green scroll any longer. The Lantern Willow had grown old and become one of the elder spirits in the forest. To many, he became the father of all tree spirits, but in his ascension to the council, the next generation of willows grew bolder still. Listening to the rantings of Atsuo, a tall hankow willow, the younger spirits began to haunt the paths of disorder again. Atsuo whipped the concerns of his cousin willows to a powerful fury. Soon the chestnuts, sycamores and elms had joined the bitter movement again and resumed their raids on the bordering villages.
Convening the elders, The Lantern Willow pressed the council of sturdy birch, gingko and pliant yew, along with the passionate maples to form a party and ride out one evening to meet the growing aggression. At first, the elders were reluctant to send any of the other tree spirits to check the willows' misdeeds. In the end, it was Miyabe's father, Hideyoshi who agreed with The Lantern Willow and rallied the other tree lords to fight, but the elders reached a decision too late. As a result, they sent too few, and when the battle turned for the worse, The Lantern Willow stood in a circle of his brothers, children and cousins, katana raised. He was breathing hard because he had grown old and his mighty etched face showed the strain of his efforts. Atsuo fought his way through the small band of benevolent spirits to face the revered elder.
"Put down your swords and return to your dark hollows," The Lantern Willow ordered.
"Not this time," Atsuo answered as he thrust his great sword, the long obsidian blade known as Kurayami, into The Lantern Willow's shoulder. The gold and jade hilt of the older warrior's katana fell into a cluster of reeds beside the Kamo-gawa. The great weapon had never fallen from its owner's hands until that night, and he did not pick it up even then. According to the scrolls, it lays there still, covered in silt and the black murk of the river bottom.
Atsuo would not slay The Lantern Willow, however. He feared for his own soul's ultimate peace, but he did banish him from the northern forests, sending him back to the council of elders in shame. Hideyoshi was wounded in the battle as well, and Shirasawa's father saw his ghost separated from the strong roots of his mother soil. Atsuo warned the remaining samurai spirits to return home, then swore that the next time he faced an army from the council, he would separate every spirit from its host tree. This time, the council decided quickly. They asked Miyabe to summon the remaining daimyos and ride north to fight the willow ronin. The young warrior delayed his journey one night to stay and marry Shirasawa.
Miyabe peered up at the venerable oak presiding over the wedding ceremony and down at the supple brown deer spread between his feet and Shirasawa's tender roots. The elder motioned for him to continue.
Miyabe looked up from his kneeling position and spoke softly to Shirasawa. "I will be your servant, when all others fail you. I will keep your life sacred, as long as the moon continues to rise over the sunset, and as long as it washes the spirits of our grove in silver light." He said the words with his eyes fixed on Shirasawa. "I will lift you up on a breeze in the spring, and cover you with down during winter's chill. I am yours, Shira, until our spirit days are ended and we return to the ways of the winds that came before us." Then he used a razor sharp hitachi dagger to open the doe's throat and spill its crimson blood onto the roots of Shirasawa's maple tree. The bride kissed the top of Miyabe's head and vanished into the cool grey bark of the slender tree, sighing softly as the warm flow soaked her tender roots. There was no breeze, yet the leaves of all the maples in the grove clipped together softly in gentle applause, approving the union.
With the sacred rite completed, Miyabe was pledged to Shirasawa, and by accepting his dowry, the spirit of the doe, she had accepted his promise of devotion. They were more than betrothed, they were half-married, needing only to spend the night consummating their love to conclude the wedding ceremony, but Shirasawa refused Miyabe on their wedding night.
"But Shira, why?"
"It is not time," she said.
"Tomorrow, we --" Miyabe insisted.
"Tomorrow, you go to war with the willow spirits," she finished the sentence for him. "When you return home, safe to me, then I will finish the ceremony."
"Our wedding night is almost over," he said, turning to face her. "Many of our warriors may walk in shadow after tomorrow night, even more on the following nights. You may not see me for a year or more." He left off with that gentle warning. He wanted to take her in his arms and wrap her in the warmth of his embrace to show her how much he loved her.
"If I give you my love tonight, you will be satisfied and less motivated to return to me," Shirasawa said as she brushed her fingers down the front of his robes. "We will remain as we are until you come home."
"I love you," he said.
She touched the side of his cheek with her soft white hand, and ran her fingertips lightly against his skin. "Yes, I know."
The noble oak spirit chuckled to himself as he watched Shirasawa's way with Miyabe. "It is always this way with maple trees, Miyabe. They are as passionate in life as their leaves are red in the autumn, but then you should know that, being a maple yourself."
Miyabe shrugged his broad shoulders and smiled. "I think it is more true to say that all women are stubborn, rather than blame the tendencies of maples, elder."
"True enough, Miyabe. All too true," the oak laughed.
Other maple spirits left the walls of their bark and attended the new couple, greeting them as husband and wife and handing them wreaths of flowers and other gifts. Shirasawa smiled to herself. It was a wonderful ceremony, and though she didn't say it, she could not imagine loving Miyabe any more than she did in that moment.
The next evening, when the sun dropped below the etched black horizon, the maple spirits stretched their ghostly arms from the bark and limbs of their trunks and walked out into the pathway. With little delay, they gathered their horses from a nearby field and saddled them with the items they would need for war. Miyabe tied his bags to the side of his large black courser and turned to face the remaining men.
"Red Warriors of the Maple Grove," he addressed them, "Tonight we ride to the willow lands." The hills and forest at the edge of their land were well known to all of the maple spirits.
"Many of you will not return," Miyabe continued. "Ours is a great quest, but to defeat the willow spirits and return the forest to tranquility will not be easy."
As he spoke, Shirasawa entered the grove and walked among the many samurai spirits preparing to ride to war. She made her way to Miyabe and waited until he was finished speaking to his men. When she saw that he had completed his thoughts, she closed the gap between them.
"I was wrong to make you wait for me," she whispered in his ear, "But if you left here satisfied, you would not be hungry to return and finish our wedding."
"Shira, I love you --" she stopped his lips with her long white fingers.
"Miyabe, I will be waiting for you," she said and pulled his hand to her chest and placed it between the folds of her kimono where he could feel her heart beating between her breasts. "I will be waiting."
"Shira," Miyabe said, "I will --"
She raised her hand and shushed him again. "Miyabe, you are half-married to me now, and soon will be my husband forever, but you do not know what will happen tonight or the night after."
Miyabe said nothing more.
"Go fight and win," she said, "Then return." She herself turned then and walked away from him. Miyabe stood there, staring at the space she had occupied, his eyes grey and downcast.
A fragrant breeze drifted through the grove and he scolded himself for lingering.
In spirit form, Shirasawa flew through the maple grove to a tiny stream feeding the Takano-gawa and waited. Transforming back into her smooth white skin, she knelt by the water and cried. "Why? Why did I make you wait?" she said, "You who are so good to me. I love you more than life itself."
An egret who had been walking in the water, stopped and peered at her. Shirasawa reached down into the cool river and splashed her face with clear, clean water.
"At dusk, I wake wondering if you are near," she continued, "Wondering if you will spend your evening with me, if I will feel your breath on my shoulders and know that you are standing next to me."
Tears fell freely from her eyes.
"But you were so determined to have both me and your war," Shirasawa continued. "I only wanted you."
The egret opened its bill as if to answer, but uttered no reply.
She splashed more of the brisk water on her cheeks. It felt so refreshing compared with the warm sting of salty tears. You wanted to fight, Shirasawa said to herself, to fulfill your honor. I shared you with your determination to train and prepare. I never said a word, but in the end, your eyes were always so distant and far away. That is why I made you wait, Miyabe, because you did not even see who you were marrying.
Watching the bird moving gracefully through the shallows, Shirasawa decided the water would feel good all over, and there in the deep blue of night, she disrobed quietly and stepped into the stream. The chill of the water spread across her skin and woke her nerves, enlivened every fiber of her being. Still, she felt so hollow.
"No, that's not entirely true," she said aloud. "I know you love me, and I love you." But she seldom said it aloud to him. "I know that you see me, and that you love me. Still, it is not a time for love to be first in our minds."
Shirasawa let her fingers trail in the water as she walked further into the stream. It grew deeper and the surface began to splash her tiny breasts. She ducked her head and dove into the ripples spread out in front of her. In the blackness of the underwater currents, her long naked body bent and shimmered through the coming drifts. She flexed her limbs and swam on against the current, tooling her arms and pumping her legs until she had no more air in her lungs. With a gasp, she broke the surface and stood in the shallows again.
Trembling in the frigid midnight air, she continued to speak to Miyabe as if he was there: I made you wait because I wanted it to be only about me. Your eyes were so intent on riding to war and avenging your father. I didn't want to share you with the great responsibility you bore. I didn't want to share you with your honor, your katana and this horrible war.
She shivered as the wind dried her skin on the banks. She gathered her things and walked along the shore, dressing as she went. The wind whipped the boughs and a cloud passed over the moon. In the darkness, Shirasawa cried again.
I am such a fool, she thought, and now I may never see you again.
"You mustn't think such things." The Lantern Willow stood beside her and lifted the golden lamp in his branches. Its warm glow fixed the glade in a vivid amber light. Shirasawa dressed quickly and faced the elder tree spirit.
"If he is distracted, it will be my fault," she said. "I was wicked to make him wait. Now he will only want to rush home to me."
"Miyabe will fight honorably, Shirasawa. You need not worry about that." The Lantern Willow waited for her to absorb that thought completely. "You know your husband's heart, so why do you cry?"
"He is not yet my husband," Shirasawa answered.
"There is only one thing remaining to make the ceremony complete."
"He doesn't know how much I love him," she said to The Lantern Willow. "I have never told him," she blushed at how it sounded out loud, "It is a game we play."
The elder laughed at her, a deep and rumbling laugh that drew her ire. "What is so funny, elder?"
"You think he doesn't know how much you love him because you seldom tell him?"
The answer she thought was 'yes', but it seemed silly to say it. "What am I supposed to think?"
"You are supposed to believe," The Lantern Willow said.
Her startled look said 'in what?' so clearly that the elder answered the question.
"Believe that your husband loves you as much as you love him, believe that he shared your game, and chose his own role in it. The world is so much easier than we spirits make it out to be."
He patted her arm and turned to walk off.
"I will laugh about this for many nights," he chuckled again. "Many nights, yes."
The battle was joined before Miyabe expected. The willow spirits ambushed the Red Warriors on the road and worked their way through the back of the line, slashing and slaying. When Miyabe turned the front of the march to aid the tail, the forward strength of willows advanced on the other end of the column. Caught between the two fronts, many of the maple spirits panicked; some of them left the road, seeking refuge in the hollows of the forest, hoping to find the safety of rigid bark to retire in. Still, Miyabe led the charge, "We must find a way through the willow ranks!"
He became a thunderstorm of hostile fury. In his rage, there was no foe that could stop him, no sword that could touch him. He was spirit moving swiftly through the fray, the next moment, body and mass, striking his opponent with brute force. The willows recoiled from him, unable to match his fervor or even slow his blade. But coupled with the unmatched losses from the ambush, and the maple spirits who had deserted in the face of battle, the Red Warriors were soon outnumbered more than two to one. Against such odds, breaking the willow line only severed the advancing front for a few minutes. The evil ronin were soon joined by the opposite end of their assault, and as their bloodlust consumed them, the willow spirits grew bolder. They began to simply slay the maples with no reprieve. The battle slipped from a meeting of two equal armies to a massacre. The road and fields beside ran red with the blood of maple spirits slain in the corporeal form. Their spirits left their bodies and drifted with the wind over the hills and far away.
Seeing that the main host of maples had fallen, Miyabe challenged his men. "Red Warriors!" he shouted, "we are outnumbered and will be defeated. May each of you earn your death, and let it be one to remember forever in the sacred scrolls!"
Miyabe's battle rage consumed him, and his blade danced among the willows, severing arms and hands, like branches from limbs. More blood spilled and ran sticky like sap. His katana grew slippery with the slick flow, but greased in such a way, it moved through the enemy with even greater ease. Miyabe killed fourteen of the vile willows in his advance, but the ranks continued to close around him.
"My warriors, it is time!" he shouted, and the last of the remaining samurai turned outward, forming a ring. Almost twenty of them stood side by side in a circle of red armor and raised katanas, blood and sap dripping from their blades, sweat falling from their brows. Miles away, Shirasawa felt an ill breath, a deep frigid sigh work its way through the hollow place in her chest.
"Miyabe," she said aloud to the motionless boughs in the empty grove. At once, a solemn rain fell in long thick drops like crystal tears falling from the sky. Shirasawa fell to her knees in the middle of the pathway and laid her face sideways in the dirt. Embracing the cool soil beneath her created the feeble illusion that she could hold on to him somehow. For one silent moment, all paths leading to and from the grove seemed to begin and end within the mound of her prostrate body.
Back on the front, the final hour arrived with a palpable calm. In the passing stillness, Miyabe thought to himself that the battle deserved a poem -- a great epic, long and beautiful, but he realized no one would survive to write it. In the stillness that surrounded them, the last warriors breathed heavily. They shared glances with each other, considering the wide host before them. Each man marked the enemies he would slay before passing into darkness for a time. Then without uttering a word, the few remaining Red Warriors advanced to meet the larger force. They did not wait to defend and die; they walked slowly forward and attacked.
The ringing of swords filled the entire valley and echoed across the field. Passing willows lost the ability to control their forms. Some died as men, some were hacked apart as trees. Others fainted into their spirit form and the Red Warriors shredded the gossamer tendrils as they tried to float away on the midnight air. The samurai pressed their circle outward, but there was to be no rally. Though Miyabe had planned this final move, it was never intended to win the battle, only to raise the number of casualties on the other side.
As each samurai in the circle fought his way forward, the distance between him and the Red Warrior to his left and right grew. The resulting gaps spread and more willow spirits came between each man. The warriors fought on, but soon the circle broke. To his right, Miyabe saw one of his brothers sliced through the thigh. The wounded leg created an unstable foundation, and soon the samurai was caught off balance. A second willow pierced the wounded man through an opening in the side of his armor. On Miyabe's left, the crowding ranks stumbled and rolled into another Red Warrior's legs, taking the footing of the samurai out from under him. The soldier threw his arm forward, catching one last willow spirit with his outstretched blade.
With both of his flanks gone, Miyabe felt the press of the advancing foe more closely. There was almost no room to swing his blade, yet bring it out and down he did, splitting the next willow spirit in range. He was exhausted, but still he forced the katana back up to block a blow from the next attacker. The crowding willows fell into him. Miyabe shifted his feet and struggled to remain standing. Sweat filled his eyes, and stung like fire. His heart pounded a steady drumbeat in his chest. Somehow he managed to raise his blade and bring it down again to its savage beat.
"Red Warriors!" Miyabe yelled, "Tonight we go to wherever the winds will blow our spirits."
He chopped his sword towards the willow to his right, but this time, another rogue spirit on his left shimmied a three-pronged sai into the folds of his armor, ripping Miyabe's side open. As the air escaped his collapsed lung, Miyabe saw Atsuo just a few feet away. Another thrust and parry and he would meet him in battle, but a third katana caught Miyabe from behind, slicing through his hamstring and dropping him to one knee. The surrounding ronin pressed in on him and he felt another blade enter his abdomen, still another piercing his kidney from behind. He brought his sword down on to the shoulders of the adversary in front of him, but as he did, another ronin shoved his blade up through Miyabe's throat. The breath in his mouth left in one violent exhale. The battle was over.
"It is not the end, child."
Shirasawa rose to find The Lantern Willow standing beside her.
"Miyabe's spirit will drift with the winds for a time," The Willow continued, "and come to rest in the bark of a new maple, in a new grove far away."
The rain continued with its persistent trickle.
"You may search for him if you wish, and you may find him in time."
Shirasawa lifted her muddy face to greet the elder. "How will I know him?"
"You will know," he answered. "He may not know you, but you will know him when you see him. I would start looking in..." His voice trailed off with a long low hum as he paused to consider the direction of the wind and the course of the growing downpour.
"I would start looking in China," The Lantern Willow uttered at last. "Yes, that is where I would look."
"We were only half-married," she said with a note of defiance.
The storm responded to her mood. Thunder shook the trees, as lightning shrieked across the night sky. Shirasawa was furious. "I will find him!" she shouted at The Lantern Willow. "I will find him, I will! I will!" It was a promise she made to herself, a promise she made to the wind and rain, and a promise to the shaking boughs. It was a promise for this night and the many nights to come. It was the kind of vow a lover swears when she is dedicating every hour of every future day to one pursuit. "I will find him and marry him, and we will be together forever."
"When you find him, he may be a sapling," The old spirit countered. "Do you think a sapling can return and lead us to war?"
Shirasawa did not know what to say.
"I cannot lead us," he bowed his head, "and the council of elders will not last beyond the time it takes you to find his spirit."
"What are you saying?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
Shirasawa knew the answer, but pouted instead of answering.
"You must stay and lead the army. The council will unite behind your passion. The remaining tree spirits will only rally around a true leader."
"But I cannot fight," she responded. "And you said I would find Miyabe in China."
"Yes, but only you can lead the combined daimyos. You must lead them, or else there will be no maple grove to return to."
"What if I find Miyabe and we settle in a new maple grove? What if my happiness is waiting for me far away in China?"
"Shira," The Lantern Willow said. It was only one word, but the combination of his tender eyes and stern expression fixed the rest for her. Still, she continued searching the horizon to the north and preparing her mind for the trip across the sea. The ancient spirit sensed that she had made up her mind.
"Your journey will be hard," he closed his eyes and prophesied. "And I see many moonless nights before you. You will hunger and shiver and rue the day you left your home -- "
"But?" Shirasawa prompted. "But I will find him, right?"
No answer. The elder opened his eyes, but said nothing in return.
I will find him, Shirasawa said to herself. I will, I will.
© 2012 Jay Hill
Bio: From 2009 - 2010, Jay Hill was a regular contributor to the online music site, tinymixtapes.com. One of his stories appeared recently in 365Tomorrows.com. At present, he is working on a biography of John Coltrane and editing his first attempt at a fantasy novel.
E-mail: Jay Hill
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