Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An Opening Chapter from Silapa Jarun

Chapter 1

My brother and I are two and one.

There is only “us”

and “we”

no other.



1868 Ise-han, Japan

Aki pulled a hand away from his ear. The cannons stopped showering destruction upon the castle and territory of Ise-han. The sword-bearing youth closed his eyes briefly as a rare breeze caressed his face, cleared the gun smoke and cut through the suffocating humidity. Large thunderclouds gathered on the horizon, promising to wash away the blood from the stronghold. There was finally a victor and loser in the war. It was over.

The young warrior's entire unit surrendered when they received word that their daimyo, feudal lord, had committed seppuku, ritual suicide, rather than be arrested. Amidst the injured and exhausted men beaten by starvation and superior weaponry, Aki crouched in the dirt before his approaching captors. Flutes and drums signaled the approach of the victor's official entourage and the defeated pressed their foreheads to the ground immediately. He looked up slightly to see the looming shadow of the Imperial banner creep by on the path. The youth remembered his daimyo's formal declaration to side with the Tokugawa Shogunate and defy the invading Imperial troops. He was told that everyone, even a peasant or a child, could make a difference, so Aki chose to risk his life by volunteering to relay messages from the castle to the troops. The glorious Chrysanthemum Crest of the Emperor disappeared from view like the very existence of Ise domain. Their final duty as former retainers of the Shogunate is to behave honorably as prisoners.

Quiet reigned over a large camp full of the defeated men. The earlier gentle breeze was now an icy wind which whipped about, threatening the fires and few candles which kept back the darkness. Aki was still exhausted after being forced to march nonstop to this desolate area of the domain. When he saw his brother, Akeno, the only person left in his life, he rushed to embrace the young man.

Akeno, still dressed as a page in the castle, was like a bunraku puppet of flesh and blood. He did not see or hear Aki. The samurai sank down onto a straw mat and brought his knees up to his chest, oblivious to Aki’s attempt to get his attention.

Aki whispered to his sibling’s shell, “Who took your soul?” and squeezed his eyes shut after staring at the enigma which lay next to him. “Akeno, I pray you will return to your body soon. Come back to me.”

In his sleep, Aki could still taste the dirt in his mouth and hear the endless gunfights and cannon blasts. He could not banish the sounds of steel cutting through flesh and bone and the awful screams that followed. The young man unconsciously stretched out his arm to Akeno, seeking comfort and warmth in an effort to defeat his nightmare. His fingers found the floor instead of a warm body.

Aki was suddenly seized by an intense cold, as if he was buried to the waist in snow. He summoned his willpower, refusing to dismiss the sensation as merely a dream, and forced his eyes open. This would not be the first time he could feel physical sensations experienced by his brother. He panicked and blurted out, “Something is wrong! Where is my brother?”

The drunken guards were unaware of the stealthy shadow which climbed the low bamboo fence and headed to the shores of Genbu-ike, Black Turtle Lake. It’s my fault. I could have stopped what happened, but I was afraid. There were too many men two nights ago. What if I had become another victim? I put myself before Akeno, my own brother, because I’m a coward.

A neatly folded stack of silk clothing on the edge of the still lake pointed him to a figure in the black water. It’s the outer layer of clothing he wore today. Aki held his breath and scanned the waters ahead of him.

“Akeno!” He rushed into the lake, his straw sandals slipping over smooth stones as he staggered towards his lifelong companion.

* * * *

My body hurts. If I can just destroy this shell, then I’ll be free. If I die, I won’t have to think about it anymore. Akeno clutched the side of his head, as if doing so would keep his skull intact, and exhaled. “I don't want to think about it!” The samurai, wearing just a thin kimono, the last layer of his fine clothing, wrapped his arms around his center like covering a gaping wound and shivered as he kept his pace towards the depths that lay ahead. He stood in the waist high water like a statue, not hearing the shouting and splashing behind him.

Strong arms seized the dazed man and tried to pull him back to land.

Akeno yelped in pain. “My ribs hurt. Don’t touch me!” he gasped. “They did this to me! Let me go! I must destroy this body.” Incomprehensible sentences continued to pour from Akeno’s cold lips even as he began to realize someone was calling his name.

Akeno! Wake up!”

A strike across the face brought Akeno back to his senses, and his eyes found an identical figure before him.

“Aki?” he breathed. “I hate myself.”

How can you say you hate yourself when we are the same? Do you hate me, Akeno? Do you?”

“No, no.” Akeno was shaking his head, his face a contorted sculpture of pain and confusion. “N-Not you.” He pointed at his chest. “Me, I hate myself. Me.”

Brother, you don’t exist. Only we exist. You cannot hate yourself.” Aki slowly reached out to hold his brother’s trembling shoulders and whispered, “Tell me everything.” They stood still in the water, one listening, one whispering.

Akeno was shaking. “I can’t live with this dishonor.”

“Then I’ll destroy the ones who hurt you. Once I have punished them, you will not have to think of this again.” Aki placed his palms on either side of his brother’s face and watched as the faint moonlight illuminated the pale, smooth skin.

A-Aki, there was only one that night.” Akeno chewed his lower lip and wiped away the tears with the back of his hand. I can’t remember all their names or hideous faces. “Hamada is the one who should die.” The samurai winced when he rubbed the back of his hand across the tender corner of his bruised and swollen lip.

Aki nodded. “I will dispatch Hamada with my own hands. Listen carefully. The peasant riot is moving closer to the camp tonight. When it does, you have to escape and meet with the others heading to Edo.” Once Hamada’s blood is spilled, I will have atoned for abandoning you, Akeno. We were in that room together.

“I won’t leave without you.” Akeno could not stop crying. “We came together and we should go together.”

We will not be separated for long,” Aki said, trying to soothe his sibling’s emotions. “I promise it will be only temporary.” He clenched his teeth. “Akeno, I will not allow them that one to touch you again. I’ll take care of you from now on.”

Akeno, the gentle sibling, sobbed into his brother’s chest. “I—I am ashamed.” Disbelief strangled Akeno’s voice as he looked away and squeezed his fists. “It’s not supposed to happen to men.”

“I’ll restore your honor. But first, you have to give me your clothing before leaving. They have not seen me, so it will be easy.” Aki tried to absorb the waves of grief from Akeno, but his own growing anger easily overshadowed the attempt. “Take off the wet clothing.”

Aki dragged his twin to the water’s edge slowly, never letting his hands leave his brother’s body. He watched him strip away the soaked cloth. Seeing Akeno’s toned and lithe body was like experiencing a strange dream. It was as if his brother was an external reflection of his soul. He tried not to look at all the bruises, but it was hard to tear his eyes away from the corner of Akeno’s damaged lip.

Now you take my clothes, Akeno. They’re dirty and wet too, but at least you will not look like our Lord’s page anymore.”

Aki pointed to the corner of his own mouth. “You have to

Akeno punched his brother.

The older brother staggered backwards and cradled his chin. “Good.” Aki could feel the blood crawling down his chin. “Perfect. Now we match!” As usual, brother can guess what is on my mind.

Torches carried by the mob soon blazed across the horizon, and the chants of the farmers rumbled across the plain. They would not stand a chance against the Imperial army that rushed forth to put down the insurrection. Everyone was starving. The domain’s farmers who fed the samurai were left with nothing when the siege began. Even breast milk stopped flowing, and many babies withered away as the war climaxed. Akeno reluctantly made his escape amidst the chaos but constantly looked behind him, hoping that perhaps Aki would follow.

Aki ran a broken wooden comb through his hair as he watched Akeno slip into the night with both their katana, swords, tied to his back. All weapons were turned over to the enemy officers. All except the two Matsumoto family heirlooms Aki had buried under a tree earlier that day. He smoothed his raven black locks to make them proper, as those of his brother, and returned to the storeroom where the prisoners crouched around a weakening fire.

A teenager who was a subordinate page looked up. “Hey, Akeno?” Kajinosuke eyed the handsome older samurai suspiciously.

Tadayoshi, another attendant, tilted his head to the side. “Aki, what are you trying to do? Look, some people can’t tell the difference, but I know both you brothers too well. Why are you dressed like Akeno? Where did he go?”

Aki sat down slowly and smiled. “Kajinosuke, Tadayoshi, tomorrow we are going to take care of some scoundrels, and you two will help me.” He stretched out on the straw-covered floor as the two youths looked at each other. The older twin looked at a spider in the upper corner of the wooden structure. Its long legs moved slightly on the web, stretching out the silk. Aki closed his eyes and committed the name Hamada, which Akeno had whispered, to memory. Akeno did not need to tell me who those animals were. I was there. I saw everything. I’ll never forget. Why did he just give me one name?

Aki smiled to himself. “While many people in our Ise-han have seen us ‘mirror samurai’, few can tell us apart. I’m counting on the enemy to be just as confused.”

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