behind the clouds.
Where are they going?
Kurume, Saga Prefecture, 1874.
By Ash Warren
The lodging house was full of travelers tonight, but Suruga was only interested in one. That person sat in the corner of the room smoking a short pipe, his sugegasa straw hat pulled down low so that it was impossible to see his face. In the corner beside him, propped against the wall were his swords, their finely wrought black scabbards glowing softly.
Suruga watched him intently from across the crowded, smoky room. .
It was him, no question.
Matsuda Takeyoshi. The man who had betrayed them.
Finally the man rose slowly to his feet, quietly paid his bill and walked out into the night.
Barely able to control his anger, the older man quickly put his own weapons into his sash and followed him.
Outside on the dark and empty road, a light rain was falling.
Suruga quickly caught sight of him, walking alongside the long mud-brick wall of the Shoinji temple, and set off in pursuit. The younger man turned the corner and by the time Suruga caught up a few seconds later he found himself staring down an empty road.
He had vanished.
Looking around he spied a small path leading into the woods opposite.
‘Now I have you.’ he thought coldly.
The older man headed briskly into the trees but had gone no more than a few yards when he was suddenly tripped and flung face-first onto the ground. Before he could move further the point of a wakizashi short sword was against his throat and the younger samurai was straddling him.
Suruga struggled furiously but without success. He could still speak though.
‘You!’ he gasped. ‘You dare to show your face here? In Kurume? Are you insane? You dare to still draw breath? After his death? After our whole family died? Coward!! I will kill you myself. You don’t deserve to take your own life!’
Matsuda looked down at the older man.
‘Suruga san….’ he whispered softly. In his eyes there was no emotion at all, just a stillness, a kind of exhausted emptiness.
Matsuda sheathed his blade and allowed Suruga to struggle to his feet. The older man, seizing his chance unsheathed his sword and, raising it above his head, prepared to strike. Matsuda, however, knelt politely in the formal seiza style and spoke in a quiet but clear voice, making no move to dodge the oncoming blow.
‘I have come to give you something, Suruga-san. It was Eto-sensei’s wish.’ His voice was completely calm.
At the name, Suruga hesitated. He then stepped back, lowering the sword behind him to his right side in the wakigamae ‘hidden sword’ striking pose.
‘Don’t talk to me about Eto!’ he hissed at him. ‘He was my nephew and a man of honour. You deserted him and all our clan the night before the battle. Yes! We all know what you did, you shameless bastard. You, who had sworn to die. You stain their memory! How dare you still walk upon this earth!’
Matsuda shuffled backwards and bowed, his head touching the ground in dogeza, the bow of prostration.
‘What you say is true, Suruga-san.’ He said addressing himself to the ground before the older man. ‘I know I cannot live with this dishonor….. but there is a reason I am here. Will you listen to it? If it is not acceptable to you, then I will kill myself at once.’
His voice was calm, but cracking with emotion.
Suruga spat, stood up straight and sheathed his sword.
Matsuda took out a bamboo tube from inside his robe and held it out with both hands, his still head lowered.
‘This from Eto-sensei. It’s for you.’
The older man looked about him.
‘Not here.’ he said shortly.
Later, they sat on the zabuton cushions in the main reception room of Suruga’s house. The sound of the rain outside seemed to grow in the silence of the room, somehow cutting them off from the rest of the world.
The older man finished the letter, then folded it neatly and placed it on the floor between them.
At last he spoke.
‘So he gave you this task the night before the battle? And no one knew?’
‘It had to be that way.’ he said simply. ‘I didn’t understand at first. I begged him to let me stay, to let me die with him….. but he insisted….’
The younger man stared at the palms of his hands. Suruga felt the weight of his words, as if the man was being consumed alive by some kind of internal flame.
‘I told him that I would lose my honour if I did this, if I did not die with him. That I would lose my name….Nobody would understand it….’
The older man nodded.
‘And so you disgraced yourself to serve him…..’ Suruga sighed heavily. ‘But it was his wish, and you…. you were his friend.’ Suruga seemed to be addressing himself to something beyond them in the darkness outside.
He looked up at the younger man thoughtfully.
‘You have taken a grave risk coming here. I am not the only one who wanted you dead.’
Matsuda leaned toward him.
‘Do you know where she is?’ he asked earnestly.
The older man nodded.
‘Of course. She’s with the boy at Kuratsu. By the sea, with an old friend. No one knows who they really are. Or they would be dead, like you.’
Matsuda understood this all too well. The hatred ran deep indeed. After the rebellion had failed, the Imperial Minister Okubo Toshimitsu had even refused to allow Eto to take his own life, and instead had him beheaded and his head placed on public display, considered a grave dishonor to someone of his high rank.
‘Eto-sensei begged me to save his wife and son.’ Matsuda said. ‘To take them to Hokkaido, to Ezo. It’s the only place they will be safe from the government.’
‘And the money? The silver he gave you? You still have it?’
‘Of course. It’s near here. Hidden. It’s been very difficult to get here. I have been travelling for months….’
The old man rose to his feet.
‘Let’s drink something. We can leave at first light if you like.’
Matsuda gestured for him to wait.
‘Suruga-san, I must ask you something. ‘
‘After I have taken them to Ezo….I must die. Immediately. I can bear this no longer.’ The younger man gazed emptily at the tatami mats.
‘I am still…. samurai…’ he whispered. ‘Please…. care for them when I am gone.’ And he bowed deeply again.
Suruga looked at him for a long moment, then turned and went to a small chest next to the wall behind him.
From it he took a small package wrapped in yellow silk and gave it to the younger man.
Inside was a plain wooden scabbard. The younger man drew the knife and held it up to the candlelight. The blade was of immaculate tempered steel, with a wave pattern engraved with cherry blossoms.
‘Use this.’ said Suruga. ‘When the time comes. Reclaim…. what is yours.’