A maverick samurai endeavours to protect a woman who has fallen on hard times in Samantha Payne’s “Ikigai: A Reason for Being”, published in Alt Hist Issue 9.
by Samantha Payne
Spring had arrived in Edo. The scent of cherry blossoms suspended on the wind and he stood where he always did, staring into the open paper window of my father’s store.
Even from a distance I knew it was him, his towering frame was unmistakable. His hand rested on the hilt of his katana, one of two swords hanging from the obi at the waist of his gray kimono. He was always ready to strike, and it surprised me that he had not noticed my approach, or perhaps, he had but he sensed no danger from me.
“Mamoru?” He twitched a little in surprise and turned to look at me. His tawny eyes a contrast to his dark hair. He was handsome, in a plain way.
“Excuse me, Ms. Nakamura, am I in your way?”
“No, not at all, and please, for the last time, just call me Shouka. It makes me feel rude that I should refer to you by your first name, but you still insist on being so formal with me.” I adjusted the basket of vegetables in my arms to a more comfortable position. “You had a rather pleased expression, have you found a blade you might like?”
He turned back to the window. “This blade is a Kanemitsu Osafune of Bizen.”
I stepped closer to look at the sword he spoke of, but only glanced at it for a moment before observing him as he continued.
“They say if you want a sword, buy one made in Bizen. It is believed that most of the swords in action today, are in fact, Bizen blades.” He paused, and his gaze was almost hungry. It was like watching a child who had just discovered a toy he must have. “Even among the best swordsmiths, this one in particular, must have been forged by a truly gifted man.” Mamoru’s eyes lit up. “Speaking of talented swordsmiths, ones that have been said to rival those of Bizen include the Awataguchi and Rai Schools.”
There was a boyishness to Mamoru I had never seen before and I could not suppress my laughter.
“What is it?” He looked from the window to me, startled and obviously confused by my outburst, but his face would never show it. The boyishness was gone and he was once again a man of few words and little, readable, emotion. “I did not say anything with the intent to make you giggle. By any chance did I make an error in my statement?”
“No, no, not at all. Truth be told, I would not know otherwise.” I waved a hand in dismissal.
“Then what provoked you to laugh?” His voice was flat, to the point.
“I was just thinking how charming you can be when talking about something such as a weapon. It is a little ironic.” I looked from him to the swords in front of us, the sun reflected off the steel. Mamoru was a quiet, taciturn, man, which many people construed as coldness, but when swords were the subject of conversation he came to life.
“I am fascinated by the meaning forged into the blade. That is all.” His mind seemed to have wandered far from me, but he continued to humor me with conversation.
“What meaning is that?” The basket in my arms was growing cumbersome, and the afternoon sun warm but I endured.
“A sword has a simple and straightforward existence, to take your enemy’s life.”
I shifted the weight of the basket into one arm so I could reach out and rest my hand on Mamoru’s shoulder. “I think that’s one way of looking at it, but I think it’s more complicated than that, similarly to someone else I know.” I gave him a smile, and pulled my hand back to lift the banner hanging in the shop’s doorway. “Please, Mamoru, come inside.”
He followed after me. “I’m curious about your opinion on this matter.”
I set the basket down on an empty table near the entry way. “Swords are used to protect things we hold dear: people, ideals, and yes, that might mean hurting another who wishes to destroy such things, but if you only look at it from your side you’re neglecting the warrior’s purpose.”
He didn’t respond, but directed his gaze back to the swords on his right.
“Think about it, Mamoru, the first time we met, you used your sword to protect me from a group of thugs who used their blades to intimidate others. A sword’s purpose is ultimately defined by the warrior.”
He remained silent, seemingly deep in thought, as he faced away from me.
“Mamoru, are you looking to purchase one of those swords, because they seem to be speaking to you more than I am.”
“Is your father in, Ms. Nakamura?”
“I’m sure he is, wait here.” I grabbed the basket of vegetables and headed to the back of the shop that connected to our home.
My father sat on his zabuton while looking over a parchment, going over our finances no doubt. “Father?”
“Oh, Shouka, you’re home.” He smiled and set aside his brush and ink. “Is it busy out in the market today?”
“Business seems steady, speaking of, Mamoru is here. He wishes to speak with you.”
“Of course.” He stood from the cushion on the floor and followed me out to the front of the store where Mamoru was inspecting a different set of swords along the wall. “Mr. Yamaguchi, good afternoon.”
Mamoru turned to greet my father with a bow. “Good afternoon, Mr. Nakamura.”
“Shouka says you wanted to speak with me, what can I do for you?”
“Your Bizen blades, the katana and the shorter blade, the wakizashi, how much for the pair?”
“Oh, well, they are quite expensive, I am afraid.” I glanced at my father, taken back by his dismissive tone toward Mamoru, an interested customer.
“I would expect no less and I am more than willing to pay whatever price you deem is fair.”
My father sighed and rubbed his hand over his shaved head. “Mr. Yamaguchi, you are a good man and I will forever be grateful for your protection of my daughter all those months ago, but I cannot sell to you.”
“What?” I was shocked. “Father, what do you mean you can’t sell to him?” As if he was unable to hear me, he continued to speak with Mamoru.
“I am sure you understand why.” My father gestured to Mamoru’s hand resting still on the hilt of his sword. “If word got out that I was willing to sell to a man who carries his blades on his right, well, I would have no business.”
“We barely have business as it is, who cares if his swords are on his right.” I knew it was out of line for me to protest, but Mamoru was a friend and I recognized my father’s business was suffering with the presence of Western guns on the rise.
“Shouka, that is enough. I have said all there is to say on the matter.” My father brought his attention back to Mamoru. “I am sorry, Mr. Yamaguchi.”
“I understand, thank you for your time.” Mamoru bowed his head once more and stepped out.
“Mamoru, wait!” I followed quickly after his long strides, not waiting for my father to explain himself to me.
He stopped at the sound of his name but said nothing.
“I am sorry, about my father.” I took a breath and continued, “He should have sold you the swords, what does it matter if you wear yours on the right.
“Look around you,” his voice was cold like steel.
I did as he said, observing the road, and those who passed by us. The market was bustling with people no different than him and me.
“A warrior carries his sword on the left. A samurai carrying his sword will always walk on the left side regardless of how narrow a path is. They do this to keep anyone from touching their sword. A warrior’s soul is in his sword.” Mamoru pushed the hilt of his sword up by the hand guard with his thumb. “When a sword smith crafts a blade he inscribes a protective ki on the right side of the tang. In order to be protected the ki needs to point towards the wielder. By wearing my blade on the right, I am unprotected from evil.”
It’s then I see it, every man that passed by, carrying a sword at his side, wore it on his left. Everyone but Mamoru.
“I was born left-handed. No dojo would accept me. Budo forbids drawing your sword with your left hand, so the moment I picked up a fencing stick they tried to change the way I held my sword … Every time.”
“Why not let them change your stance?”
“Because there was nothing to fix.” He looked from me to the sky. “If I strike from the right I hit considerably harder. Drawing from the left limits my capabilities.”
There was a brief silence between us as we both stood, side by side, looking up through the branches of a cherry blossom tree, to the eternal blue of the sky.
“How many times have we watched these flowers bloom, I wonder.” The tone in his voice was gentle now, and a smile pulled at his eyes. “Time’s passing comes with change, but even so, there are some things which do not change. I place my faith in what remains unmoved.”
Mamoru would not change. That was his belief, and as I stood there beside him, I too wanted to believe in those things that did not change. I wanted to stand at his side, just like this, and watch the cherry blossoms bloom again next season, but Japan was changing and foreign influence would tear the country, and us, apart.
Men began to forgo swords in favor of shooting their enemies with western guns. As they set aside their swords, a new era of warriors set aside their souls. Soon the path of the samurai would be lost, along with my father’s shop.
END OF FREE EXTRACT
You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 9.
About the Author
Samantha lives and writes in the cold north of Flagstaff, Arizona. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University where she teaches English Composition. In-between teaching and writing Samantha draws manga and practices coloring inside the lines.