Hoichi stands for a second outside his uncle’s dojo, the Iron Mountain Dojo. Hojatsu-sama’s legacy, like the long, straight sword in his belt. He shifts his swords in his belt. Sniffs.
At last he slips out of his wooden sandals and leather socks, and kneels by the door. He slides the shoji-screen out of the way, and slips through kneeling, the posture of an inferior entering a superior’s presence. At the door he bows to the family mon on the wall, again to the calligraphy on the wall, Hojatsu-sensei’s own hand – “Two hands.” And again to his uncle, who is sitting at ease on the raised platform beneath mon and calligraphy. Uncle Tomo sits as solid and unmoving as a mountain, his body at perfect rest. Still. He nods.
“Hoichi-san. Let’s go for a walk.” He rises up smoothly, and glides across the dojo mats. Afternoon sun slanting through the shoji screens paints a lattice pattern across his iron-grey hair. Hoichi opens the shoji, and follows his uncle out. They slip back into their foot gear, and walk past other students in the courtyard, cutting at posts, practicing forms, sparring with bokken.
Past the gate through the wall, cedars and firs line the road that winds back down to Shiro Mirumoto. They follow a narrow path around the wall, and up along the slope of the hill. Above them the white-capped peak of Iron Mountain gazes down. Hoichi breathes out and sees his breath; he does it again more vigorously and his uncle glances back at him. Hoichi is startled to realize he’s taller than his uncle now. For so long, Uncle Tomo was a giant to him. He still is. Tomo turns his head so his nephew won’t see him smile at Hoichi’s boyishness.
The path widens and passes rock formations that are so artlessly perfect they must have been cultivated. Tomo says, “What happened, Hoichi-san?”
“I fought a duel, Oli-sensei. With the Crane.”
“Just as you said, I went to the Unicorn to practice with your friend’s son, I showed him niten, and he shared his trick of shooting a bow. Then he invited me to his lord’s court. It was strange but interesting! One of the Kakita visiting the Unicorn took offense when I wore my grandfather’s sword.”
“Who was he?”
“Kakita Taru. I explained its history to him, Uncle.”
“Kakita Taru has been studying the sword for a long time. I think he must have known. Don’t you?”
“Oh. Maybe he did. Do you think…?” the question trails off with Hoichi’s uncertainty.
“So what happened?” Tomo prompts, as the path grows steeper. They pass aromatic cedars, and hear the distant call of a cuckoo-bird.
“At first he suggested a friendly contest. So of course I accepted, and we met with bokken. A few people gathered. It was short, he couldn’t draw well because of the bokken. So I won. One of the Scorpion laughed, and he grew very angry.”
“Which Scorpion, Hoichi?”
“Bayushi Terumon, one of their courtiers. He was friendly to me, I think he wanted to see the Crane embarrassed.”
“Hoichi-san, the Bayushi are glad to see anyone embarrassed, so long as it is not themselves. What did Taru-san do, when you won?”
“Oh nothing, at first, Uncle. He was very gracious, and bowed. But later at a dinner, he had some sake. Bayushi Terumon asked him to rate my technique. He…was angry, Uncle. He said I was blessed by Bishomon. Many laughed, and so I did too. Of course I’m lucky! But Terumon-san pointed out that he was crediting luck with my win, rather than skill. But the way the Bayushi said it – it was like that somehow meant that Taru-san was unskilled, if he couldn’t beat someone who relied on luck. Kakita Taru became even angrier, and said live steel would tell a different story. He said it to the Scorpion, but he meant it for me.”
Tomo sighs deeply. “And I suppose the Scorpion turned to you, looking for your response to the insult?”
“Yes! That’s exactly what happened Uncle.” Hoichi grunts as the hops over a rock blocking the path. Rockfall had strewn the way with scree as the path wound up and up the mountain. “Did someone else tell you the story? So I said of course steel or wood made no difference to me – it is the samurai’s spirit that wins the day, not his sword. The Crane didn’t like that, and stood up angrily. But I only meant that our contest with bokken was as honorable as with blades, not to insult him. But anyway, he was angry. He called for his sword, and said I had no right to the sword I bore anyway, that it would never serve the Dragon, because it belonged to the Crane. He said I would only fight with bokken because I was afraid of my grandfather’s sword.”
“Oh, Hoichi. And so you had to fight him.”
“I did, Uncle. He insulted your father! My grandfather! And me! And really, by implication, Hojatsu-sensei himself.”
“It doesn’t matter, Hoichi. Rectitude is an element of bushido, also – and you must seek your daimyo’s permission if you would fight another without being on a battlefield. Otherwise, you are only a brawler.”
Tomo sighs more heavily, and stops to sit on a rock overlooking the valley beneath. “Was your stance strong?”
“Yes Uncle. He struck first but missed. I stood my ground and cut him, but only a little, on the back of his hand. He ignored it and attacked again, and cut me. I stood my ground, but Bayushi Terumon said, ‘Just like Kakita and Hojatsu, one makes the first cut, but other can’t accept it!’ He said it while laughing, but there was cruelty in his eyes. Taru-san attacked again, and so I cut him deeply, Uncle. What else could I do?”
A dangerous glint comes into Tomo’s eyes. “There is always something else you can do, Hoichi-san. Not-striking is more powerful than striking. No-thought is stronger than thought. No-sword is stronger than the sword.”
Tomo stands up briskly, and pats straight his hakama. He points at a head-sized boulder on the trail above them. “Very well, Hoichi, I will demonstrate. Wait here, and show me your stance when that rock rolls down the hill.”
“Hai, Oli-Sensei.” Hoichi bows, Stands ready as his uncle toils up the slope.
“Now, Hoichi. Show me your stance!” He pushes the boulder, and it rolls and bounces down the hillside directly towards Hoichi. Arms relaxed at his side, standing easily, Hoichi waits until the boulder’s last bounce. It leaps into the air, straight towards him, and he moves in a blur. Short sword follows the long in a lightning pair of cuts – the boulder parts and falls to either side of him, the larger half halved again by the second stroke. Hoichi sheathes his swords, unperturbed. They were made of the finest, hardest Dragon steel. Any nick from the stone would be easily ground out by the sword sharpener.
Uncle Tomo trots down the trail again. “Your stance is strong. Very strong.” Hoichi beams at his rare praise. “But not strong enough, Hoichi. Go up where I was, and roll down the biggest boulder there.”
“But Uncle, it is far too large!”
“Boy, who is a better judge of what can and can not be cut?”
Hoichi bows and scrambles up the slope He finds a boulder, as large as a man, balanced close to the edge of the path. He looks down the vertiginous path and sees his uncle standing with his back to the path, eating an apple and regarding the valley below them. “Ready, Uncle?” Hoichi calls, by way of warning.
“Of course!” he answers, over his shoulder.
Hoichi struggles manfully with the boulder, its weight far greater than his own. Finally he uses his saya as a lever and pushes, pushes, straining. The boulder’s balance tips, and it rolls ponderously over once, twice, again. It gather speed. Smaller rocks follow in its wake, all crashing towards Uncle Tomo.
Casually, Tomo strolls along the path a half dozen steps. The rocks tumble past him, bounce and leap down the side of the hill. Tomo is untouched. He throws his apple core after the last of the rocks. “Come down, Hoichi.”
Hoichi returns to his uncle’s side. Tomo sits again on the rock he occupied previously. He rubs his chin. “Understand?”
“Tell me, then.” He smiles and laughs. “I never know what I’m doing till I do it!”
“Uncle, with the sword I can cut a rock. But with no-sword, no rock can bring me down.”
“Yes, Hoichi. A good stance is strong. A peaceful heart is of infinite strength. What should you have done with the angry, drunken Crane, who had been provoked by a Scorpion out to kill one of you and humiliate the other?”
“Let him pass.” Hoichi hangs his head.
“Just so, Hoichi. Let him pass. What happened to Kakita Taru?”
“I cut off his thumb, Uncle. He can’t grasp a sword again.”
“Hoichi, Hoichi. What will you do in the future?”
“Let him pass.”
David Krieger 12/17/08