Tenzo the Bandit
Hiyoshi had been back home for more than a year. He was eleven. Whenever Chikuami lost sight of him, even for a moment, he'd charge around looking for him and roar at the top of his voice, "Monkey? Have you chopped the firewood yet? Why not? Why did you leave the pail in the field?" If Hiyoshi so much as started to talk back, the rough, hard hollow of his stepfather's hand would quickly ring against the side of the boy's head. At such times his mother, the baby strapped to her back while she trod barley or cooked, would force herself to look away and remain silent. Still, her face looked pained, as if she herself had been slapped.
"It's natural for any eleven-year-old brat to help with the work. If you think you can slip away and play all the time, I'll break your ass!"
The foulmouthed Chikuami drove Hiyoshi hard. But after being sent home from the temple, he worked hard, as if he had come back a different person. On those occasions when his mother unwisely tried to shield him, Chikuami's rough hands and voice lashed out with severity. It was better, she decided, to pretend to ignore her son. Now Chikuami rarely went into the fields, but he was often away from the house. He would go into town, return drunk, and yell at his wife and children.
"No matter how much I work, the poverty of this house won't ever be eased," he complained. "There are too many parasites, and the land tax keeps going up. If it weren't for these kids, I'd become a masterless samurai—a ronin! And I'd drink delicious sake. Ah, these chains on my hands and feet!"
After one of these fits of abusiveness, he would make his wife count out what little money they had, then send Otsumi or Hiyoshi out to buy sake, even in the middle of the night.
If his stepfather wasn't around, Hiyoshi would sometimes give vent to his feelings.
Onaka hugged him close and comforted him.
"Mother, I want to go out and work again," he said one day.
"Please stay here. If it weren't for your being around…" The rest of what she said was unintelligible through her tears. As each tear appeared, she turned her head to the side and wiped her eyes. Seeing his mother's tears, Hiyoshi couldn't say anything. He wanted o run away, but he knew he would have to stay where he was and bear the unhappiness and bitterness. When he felt sorry for his mother, the natural desires of youth—to play, to eat, to learn, to run away—would grow within him like so many weeds. All these were fitted against the angry words Chikuami hurled at his mother and the fists that rained iown on his own head.
"Eat shit!" he muttered, his defiant soul a flame within his small body. Finally he pushed himself to the point of confronting his fearsome stepfather.
"Send me out to work again," he said. "I'd rather be in service than stay in this house."
Chikuami didn't argue. "Fine," he said. "Go wherever you like, and eat someone else's rice. But the next time you get driven away, don't come back to this house." He meant what he said, and although he realized Hiyoshi was only an eleven-year-old boy, he found limself arguing with him as an equal, which made him even madder.
Hiyoshi's next job was at the village dyer's shop.
"He's all mouth, and sassy to boot. Just looking for a sunny place to pick the dirt from his navel," said one of the workmen operating the dye press.
Soon after that, word came from the go-between: "I'm afraid he's of no use." And back home he went.
Chikuami glared at him. "Well, how about it, Monkey? Is society going to feed an idler like you? Don't you yet understand the value of parents?"
He wanted to say, I'm not bad! but instead he said, "You're the one who no longer farms, and it'd be better if you didn't just gamble and drink at the horse market. Everybody's sorry for my mother."
"How dare you talk that way to your father!" Chikuami's thundering roar shut the boy up, but now he was beginning to see Hiyoshi in a different light. He thought, Bit by bit, he's growing up. Each time Hiyoshi went out into the world and came back again, he was noticeably bigger. The eyes that judged his parents and his home were maturing quickly. And the fact that Hiyoshi was looking at him with the eyes of an adult deeply annoyed, frightened, and displeased the errant stepfather.
"Go on, hurry and find work," he ordered.
The following day, Hiyoshi went to his next employer, the village cooper. He was back home within a month, the mistress of the shop having complained, "I can't have a disturbing child like this in my house."
Hiyoshi's mother could not understand what she meant by "disturbing." Other places where Hiyoshi began apprenticeships were the plasterer's shop, the lunch counter at the horse market, and the blacksmith's. Each time he stayed no longer than three to six months. His comings and goings gradually became known, and his reputation got so bad that no one would act as his go-between.
"Ah, that boy at Chikuami's house. He's a foulmouthed good-for-nothing."
Naturally, Hiyoshi's mother felt embarrassed around people. She felt awkward about her son, and in response to the gossip she would quickly deprecate him, as if his growing delinquency were incurable. "I don't know what can be done with him," she'd say. "He hates farming, and he just won't settle down at home."
In the spring of his fourteenth year, Hiyoshi's mother told him, "This time you absolutely must stick with it. If the same thing happens one more time, my sister isn't going be able to look Master Kato in the face, and everybody's going to laugh and say, 'Again?’ Mind you, if you fail this time, I won't forgive you."
The next day his aunt took him to Shinkawa for an interview. The large, imposing mansion they went to belonged to Sutejiro, the pottery merchant. Ofuku was now a pale youth of sixteen; from helping his adoptive father, the boy had learned the pottery business himself.
In the pottery store, the distinction between superior and subordinate was rigidly applied. During his first interview, Hiyoshi knelt respectfully on the wooden veranda while Ofuku sat inside, eating cakes, chatting happily with his parents.
"Well, it's Yaemon's little monkey. Your father died, and Chikuami from the village became your stepfather. And now you want to serve in this house? You'll have to work hard." This was said in such a grown-up tone of voice that no one who had known the younger Ofuku would have believed it was the same person speaking.
"Yes, sir," Hiyoshi replied.
He was taken to the servants' quarters, from which he could hear the laughter of the master's family in the living room. That his friend had not shown him the least bit friendliness made him feel even lonelier.
"Hey, Monkey!" Ofuku did not mince his words. "Tomorrow, get up early and go to Kiyosu. Since you'll be taking goods to an official, load the packages onto the regular handcart. On your way back, stop in at the shipping agent's and check whether the pottery has arrived from Hizen. If you loiter along the way or get back too late, as you did the other day, you won't be let into the house."
Hiyoshi's answer was not a simple "yes" or "yes, sir." Like the clerks who had served much longer in the shop, he said, "Most certainly, sir, and with the greatest respect, sir.”
Hiyoshi was often sent on errands to Nagoya and Kiyosu. That day he took note the white walls and high stone ramparts of Kiyosu Castle and mused, What kind of pe people live inside? How can I get to live there myself?
Feeling as small and wretched as a worm, he was frustrated. As he made his way through town, pushing the heavy handcart piled high with pottery wrapped in straw, he heard the familiar words:
"Well, well, there goes a monkey!"
"A monkey pushing a handcart!"
Veiled courtesans, fashionably dressed townswomen, and the pretty young wives good families all whispered, pointed, and stared at him as he went by. He himself had already become proficient at spotting the pretty ones. What annoyed him most was the staring, as though he were some kind of freak.
The governor of Kiyosu Castle was Shiba Yoshimune, and one of his principal retainers was Oda Nobutomo. At the spot where the castle moat and the Gojo River met, one still sensed the presence of the declining grandeur of the old Ashikaga shogunate, and the
prosperity that lingered here, even in the midst of the many disturbances going on in the
world, upheld Kiyosu's reputation as the most glamorous town in any of the provinces.
For sake, go to the sake shop.
For good tea, go to the tea shop.
But for courtesans, it's Sugaguchi in Kiyosu.
In the pleasure quarter of Sugaguchi, the eaves of brothels and teahouses lined the streets. In the daytime, the young girls who served in the brothels sang as they played catch. Hiyoshi pushed his handcart through their game, dreaming, How can I become great? Unable to come up with an answer, he kept thinking, Someday…someday…He spun out one fantasy after another as he walked along. The town was full of all the things that were denied to him: delicious food, opulent houses, gaudy military gear and saddlery, rich clothing and precious stones.
Thinking of his skinny sister with her pale face in Nakamura, he watched the steam rising from dumpling steamers in the sweet shops and wished he could buy some for her. Or passing an old apothecary, he would gaze in ecstasy at the bags of medicinal herbs and say to himself, Mother, if I could give you medicine like that, I bet you'd soon get much better. Ever present in his dreams was the wish to improve the wretched lives of his other and Otsumi. The one person he gave no thought to at all was Chikuami.
As he approached the castle town, his mind was dazzled by his usual daydreams, Someday… someday…but how? was his only thought as he walked along.
On his way across a busy crossroads, he abruptly found himself in the center of a noisy mob. He had run his cart into a mounted samurai, followed by ten retainers carrying spears and leading a horse. Straw-wrapped bowls and plates fell all over the road, breaking into pieces. Hiyoshi tottered uncertainly among the wreckage.
"Are you blind?"
While scolding Hiyoshi, the attendants trampled on the broken dishes. Not a single passerby drew near to offer him help. He collected the broken pieces, tossed them into the handcart, and began pushing again, his blood boiling in indignation for having been treated this way in public. And within his childish fantasies, he struck a serious note: How will I ever be able to make people like that prostrate themselves in front of me?
A little later, he thought of the scolding he would get when he got back to his master’s house, and the cold look on Ofuku's face loomed large in his imagination. His great fantasy, like a soaring phoenix, vanished in a host of worries, as if he had been swallowed up in a cloud of poppy seeds.
Night had fallen. Hiyoshi had put the handcart away in the shed and was washing his feet by the well. Sutejiro's establishment, which was called the Pottery Mansion, was like the residence of a great provincial warrior clan. The imposing main house was linked to any outbuildings, and rows of warehouses stood nearby.
"Little Monkey! Little Monkey!"
As Ofuku drew near, Hiyoshi got up.
Ofuku struck Hiyoshi's shoulder with the thin bamboo cane he always carried when looking around the employees' quarters or giving orders to the warehouse workers. This was not the first time he had struck Hiyoshi. Hiyoshi stumbled, and was immediately covered with mud again.
"When addressing the master, do you say 'yeah'? No matter how many times I tell you, your manners don't improve. This is not a farmer's house!"
Hiyoshi made no reply.
"Why don't you say something? Don't you understand? Say 'yes, sir.'"
Afraid of being hit again, Hiyoshi said, "Yes, sir."
"When did you get back from Kiyosu?"
"You're lying. I asked the people in the kitchen, and they told me you'd already eaten.”
"I felt dizzy. I was afraid I was going to faint."
"Because I was hungry after walking all that way."
"Hungry! When you got back, why didn't you go to the master to make your report right away?"
"I was going to, after washing my feet."
"Excuses, excuses! From what the kitchen workers told me, a lot of the pottery you were supposed to deliver in Kiyosu was broken on the way. Is it true?"
"I suppose you felt it was all right not to apologize to me directly. You thought you'd make up some kind of lie, make a joke of it, or ask the kitchen workers to cover for you! This time I'm not going to put up with it." Ofuku grabbed Hiyoshi's ear and pulled. "Well, come on. Speak up." »
"This is getting to be a habit. We're going to get to the bottom of this. Come along we'll talk to my father."
"Please forgive me." Hiyoshi's voice sounded just like the cry of a monkey.
Ofuku did not loosen his grip. He started to go around the house. The path that led from the warehouse to the garden entrance of the house was screened by a thicket of tall Chinese bamboos.
Suddenly, Hiyoshi stopped in his tracks. "Listen," he said, glaring at Ofuku and knocking away his hand, "I've got something to tell you."
"What are you up to now? I'm the master here, remember?" Ofuku said, turning pale and beginning to tremble.
"That's why I'm always obedient, but there's something I want to say to you. Ofuku, have you forgotten our childhood days? You and I were friends, weren't we?"
"That belongs to the past."
"All right, it belongs to the past, but you shouldn't forget it. When they teased you and called you 'the Chinese kid,' do you remember who always stuck up for you?"
"Don't you think you owe me something?" Hiyoshi asked, scowling. He was much smaller than Ofuku, but he had such an air of dignity about him that it was impossible to ell who was the elder. "The other workers are all talking, too," Hiyoshi went on. "They say the master is good, but the young master is conceited and hasn't got a heart. A boy like you, who's never known poverty or hardship, should try working in someone else's house. If you bully me and the other employees again, I don't know what I'll do. But remember that I have a relative who's a ronin in Mikuriya. He has over a thousand men under his command. If he came here on my account, he could wipe out a house like this in a single night." Hiyoshi's threatening stream of nonsense, combined with the fire in his eyes, terrified the hapless Ofuku.
"Master Ofuku! Where's Master Ofuku?"
The servants from the main house had been searching for Ofuku for some time. Ofuku, held prisoner by Hiyoshi's stare, had lost the courage to answer them.
"They're calling you," Hiyoshi muttered. And he added, making it sound like an order, "You can go now, but don't forget what I told you." With this parting remark, he turned away and walked toward the back entrance to the house. Later, his heart beating wildly, he wondered if they were going to punish him. But nothing happened. The incident was forgotten.
The year drew to a close. Among farmers and townspeople, a boy turning fifteen usually had a coming-of-age ceremony. In Hiyoshi's case, there was no one to give him a single ceremonial fan, much less a feast. Since it was New Year's, he sat on the corner of a wooden platform with the other servants, sniffling and eating millet cakes cooked with vegetables—a rare treat.
He wondered grimly, Are my mother and Otsumi eating millet cakes this New Year's? Although they were millet farmers, he could recall many a New Year's when there had jeen no cakes to eat. The other men around him were grumbling.
"Tonight the master will have visitors, so we'll have to sit up straight and listen to his stories again."
"I'll have to pretend to have a stomachache and stay in bed."
"I hate that. Especially at New Year's."
There were similar occasions two or three times a year, at the New Year and at the festival of the god of wealth. Whatever the pretext, Sutejiro invited a great many guests: the potters of Seto, the families of favored customers in Nagoya and Kiyosu, members of samurai clans, even the acquaintances of relatives. From that evening on, there would be a horrendous crush of people.
Today, Sutejiro was in an especially good mood. Bowing low, he welcomed his guests in person, apologizing for having neglected them that past year. In the tearoom, which was decorated with one exquisite, carefully chosen flower, Sutejiro's beautiful wife served tea to her guests. The utensils she used were all rare and precious.
It was Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa who, late in the previous century, had first practiced the tea ceremony as an aesthetic exercise. It had spread to the common people, and before long, without anyone consciously realizing it, tea had become a central part of people's daily lives. Within the confines of the narrow little tearoom with its single flower and single cup of tea, the turbulence of the world and human suffering could be forgotten. Even in the midst of a corrupt world, the tea ceremony could teach one the cultivation of the spirit.
"Do I have the honor of addressing the lady of the house?" The speaker was a big-boned warrior, who had come in with the other guests. "My name is Watanabe Tenzo. I am a friend of your kinsman Shichirobei. He promised to bring me tonight, but unfortunately he's been taken ill, so I came alone." He bowed politely. He was gentle in demeanor, and although he had the rustic appearance of a country samurai, he asked for a bowl of tea. Sutejiro's wife served it in a yellow Seto bowl.
"I am not acquainted with the etiquette of the tea ceremony," he said. Tenzo looked around him while contentedly sipping the tea. "As might be expected of such a famous, wealthy man, the tea implements here are certainly well crafted. While it is rude of me to ask, isn't the porcelain pitcher you are using a piece of akae ware?"
"Did you notice that?"
"Yes." Tenzo looked at the pitcher, deeply impressed. "If this were to fall into hands of a Sakai merchant, I daresay it would fetch about a thousand gold pieces. Quite apart from its value, it's a beautiful piece."
As they were chatting, they were called inside for dinner. Sutejiro's wife led the way, and together they went into the hall. The place settings had been arranged in a circle around the room. As host, Sutejiro sat in the very center, greeting his guests. When wife and the maids had finished serving the sake, he took his own seat at one of the tables. He picked up his cup and started to tell stories about the Ming, among whom had spent many years. It was so that he might talk about his adventures in China, a country he knew well, but one that was still relatively unknown in Japan, that he would invite his guests and treat them to such lavish entertainments.
"Well, this was a real feast. And again tonight I've heard a number of rather interesing stories," said one guest.
"I've certainly had my fill. But it's getting late. I'd better be on my way," said another.
"Me too. I really should be taking my leave."
The guests departed one by one, and the evening came to a close.
"Ah, it's over!" said a servant. "The stories may be a great treat for the guests, but hear about the Chinese all year round."
Not hiding their yawns, the servants, Hiyoshi among them, worked frantically to clean up. The lamps in the large kitchen, in the hall, and in Sutejiro's and Ofuku's rooms were finally blown out, and the stout bar on the gate in the earthen wall was set in place. As a matter of course, samurai mansions, and also the homes of merchants—if they were at all substantial—were enclosed by an earthen wall or surrounded by a moat, which would be backed up by two or three tiers of fortifications. When night fell, people in cities and the countryside felt uneasy. This had been the case ever since the civil war the previous century, and nobody thought it strange anymore.
As soon as the sun went down, people slept. When the workers, whose only pleasure was sleeping, crawled into their beds, they slumbered like cattle. Covered by a thin straw mat, Hiyoshi lay in a corner of the male servants' room, his head on a wooden pillow. Along with the other servants, he had listened to his master's stories about the great country of the Ming. But unlike them, he had listened avidly. And he was so prone to fantasizing that he was too excited to sleep, almost as though he had a fever.
What's that? he wondered, sitting up. He strained his ears, sure he had just heard a sound like a tree branch breaking and, just before that, the sound of muffled footsteps. He got up, went through the kitchen, and stealthily peeked outdoors. On this cold, clear light, the water in the large barrel was frozen, and icicles hung like swords from the wooden eaves. Looking up, he saw a man climbing the huge tree at the back. Hiyoshi guessed that the sound he had heard earlier was the cracking of a branch the man had stepped on. He observed the strange behavior of the figure in the tree. The man was swinging a light no bigger than a firefly around and around. A fuse cord? Hiyoshi wondered. The red swirl threw faint, smoky sparks into the wind. It seemed likely that the man was sending a signal to someone outside the walls.
He's coming down, Hiyoshi thought, as he hid like a weasel in the shadows. The man slid down the tree and set off with long strides toward the back of the grounds. Hiyoshi let him pass and then trailed after him.
"Ah! He was one of the guests this evening," he muttered in disbelief. It was the one who had introduced himself as Watanabe Tenzo, the man who had been served tea by the naster's wife, and who had listened raptly to Sutejiro's stories from beginning to end. All he other guests had gone home, so where had Tenzo been until now? And why? He was dressed differently from before. He wore straw sandals, the hems of his baggy trousers vere rolled up and tied back, and a large sword was belted at his side. His eyes took in the surroundings with a fierce, hawklike expression. Anyone seeing him would instantly realize that he was out for someone's blood.
Tenzo approached the gate, and just at that moment, the men waiting outside crashed against it.
"Wait! I'll loosen the bar. Be quiet!"
It must be a raid by bandits! Their leader had indeed been signaling to his followers, come to pillage the house like a swarm of locusts. Hidden in the shadows, Hiyoshi thought, Robbers! Instantly his blood surged, and he forgot all about himself. Although he did not think it through, he no longer cared about his own safety because he was concerned solely about his master's house. Even so, what he did next could only be described as foolhardy.
"Hey, you!" he called out, walking brazenly out of the shadows with who knew what in mind. He stood behind Tenzo just as he was about to open the gate. A shudder of fear ran up Tenzo's spine. How could he have guessed that he was being challenged by a fifteen-year-old boy who worked for the pottery shop? When he looked around, he was puzzled by what he saw: an odd-looking youth with the face of a monkey, eyeing him with a strange expression. Tenzo stared very hard at him for a moment.
"Who are you?" he demanded, perplexed.
Hiyoshi had completely forgotten the danger of the situation. His expression was unsmiling and blank. "All right, you, what's going on here?" he asked.
"What?" said Tenzo, now thoroughly confused. Is he crazy? he wondered. Hiyoshi’s unforgiving expression, so unlike a child's, overwhelmed him. He felt he had to stare the boy down.
"We are the ronin of Mikuriya. Raise a cry and I'll cut you down. We didn't come here to take the lives of children. Get out of here. Go lose yourself in the woodshed Supposing the gesture would intimidate the boy, he tapped the hilt of his long sword. Hiyoshi grinned, showing his white teeth.
"So you are a robber, eh? If you're a robber, you want to leave with what you came here for, right?"
"Don't be a nuisance. Get lost!"
"I'm going. But if you open that gate, not one of you will leave here alive."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You don't know, do you? Nobody knows but me."
"You're a bit crazy, aren't you?"
"Speak for yourself. You're the one whose head isn't right—coming to rob a house like this."
Tenzo's men, tired of waiting, knocked on the gate and called out, "What's going on?”
"Hold on a minute," said Tenzo. Then he said to Hiyoshi, "You said if we go into this mansion, we won't go home alive. Why should I believe you?"
"If I find out you're playing games, I'll cut off your head."
"You aren't going to find out for nothing. You'll have to give me something in return.”
"Huh?" Grumbling to himself, Tenzo was suspicious of this boy. Overhead, the starry sky was getting brighter, but the mansion, surrounded by its earthen wall, was still sunk in total darkness.
"What do you want?" Tenzo asked tentatively.
"I don't want a thing, only that you let me become a member of your gang."
"You want to become one of us?"
"Yes, that's right."
"You want to become a thief?"
"How old are you?"
"Why do you want to become a thief?"
"The master drives me like a horse. The people here bully me, they call me 'monkey’. all the time, so I'd like to become a bandit like you and get even with them."
"All right, I'll let you join us, but only after you prove yourself. Now explain what said before."
"About you all being killed?"
"Well, your plan's no good. This evening you disguised yourself as a guest and mixed with a large group of people."
"Someone recognized you."
"Think what you like, but the master clearly knew who you were. So, earlier this evening, on his instructions, I ran to the house of Kato of Yabuyama and let him know we would surely be attacked in the middle of the night and would appreciate his help."
"Kato of Yabuyama… that would be the Oda retainer Kato Danjo."
"Because Danjo and my master are relatives, he got hold of a dozen samurai who live around here, and they all came in during the evening, dressed as guests. They're on watch for you at the house right now, and that's no lie."
Hiyoshi could see from the pallor of his face that Tenzo believed him.
"Is that so?" he said. "Where are they? What are they doing?"
"They were sitting in a circle, drinking sake and waiting. Then they decided you probably wouldn't attack this late, so they went to sleep. They made me stand watch out in the cold."
Tenzo grabbed Hiyoshi, saying, "It's your life if you cry out." With the huge palm of his hand, he covered Hiyoshi's mouth.
Struggling, Hiyoshi managed to say, "Mister, this isn't what you promised. I won't make any noise. Take your hand away." He sank his fingernails into the robber's hand.
Tenzo shook his head.
"Nothing doing. I am, after all, Watanabe Tenzo of Mikuriya. You want me to believe this house is prepared. Even if that's true, if I left empty-handed I wouldn't be able to face my men."
"What can you do?"
"I'll bring out anything you want."
"You'll bring it out?"
"Yeah. That's the way to do it. That way you can finish this thing without the danger cutting people down or being cut down yourself."
"Without fail?" He tightened his grip on Hiyoshi's throat.
The gate was still closed. Afraid and suspicious, his men kept calling out in loud whispers and rattling the gate.
"Hey, boss, are you in there?"
"What's going on?"
"What's the matter with the gate?"
Tenzo loosened the bar halfway and whispered through the gap, "Something's wrong here, so keep quiet. And don't stay in a group. Split up and hide."
Going for what Tenzo had asked for, Hiyoshi crawled quietly from the entrance of the male servants' quarters into the main house. Once there, he saw that a lamp was lit in Sutejiro's room.
"Master?" Hiyoshi called out as he seated himself respectfully on the veranda. There was no answer, but he sensed that both Sutejiro and his wife were awake.
"Who is it?" asked Sutejiro's wife, her voice trembling. Either she or her husband had awakened and shaken the other awake because just a moment ago there had been a vague rustling and the sound of voices. Thinking it might be an attack by bandits, both had shut their eyes in fear. Hiyoshi opened the sliding door and moved forward on his knees. Both Sutejiro and his wife opened their eyes wide.
"There are bandits outside. A lot of them," Hiyoshi said.
Husband and wife swallowed hard, but said nothing. They looked incapable of speech.
"It'd be terrible if they came rushing in. They'd tie you two up and leave five or six dead or injured. I've thought of a plan, and I've got their leader waiting for your answer.'
Hiyoshi told them of his conversation with Tenzo, and ended by saying, "Master please let the robbers have what they want. I'll take it to Tenzo, and he'll go away."
There was a slight pause before the merchant asked, "Hiyoshi, what in the world doe; he want?"
"He said he came for the akae water pitcher."
"He said that if I handed it over, he'd go away. Since it's not worth anything, won't you let him have it? It was all my idea," Hiyoshi explained proudly. "I'll pretend I'm stealing it for him." But the despair and fear hovering around the faces of Sutejiro and his wife were almost palpable. "The akae pitcher was taken out of storage for the tea ceremony earlier today, wasn't it? The man must be a fool to tell me to bring that worthless thing to him!" Hiyoshi said, looking as if he found the whole matter hilarious.
Sutejiro's wife was extremely quiet, as though she had been turned to stone. With a deep sigh, Sutejiro said, "This is awful." Lost in thought, he too became quiet.
"Master, why look at it that way? One piece of pottery can finish all this without bloodshed."
"It's not just any piece of pottery. Even in the country of the Ming there are few pieces like it. I brought it back from China after considerable hardship. What's more, it is a keepsake from Master Shonzui."
"In the pottery shops of Sakai," said his wife, "it would fetch over a thousand gold pieces."
But the robbers were more to be feared. If they resisted them, there would be a massacre, and there had been cases of mansions being burned to the ground. Neither event was unusual in these unsettled times.
In such a situation, a man did not have much time to make up his mind. For a moment, Sutejiro seemed to be unable to break free from his past attachment to the pitcher. But finally he said, "It can't be helped." He felt a little better after that. He took the key to the storehouse from a small drawer of a lacquer cabinet.
"Take it to him." He threw the key down in front of Hiyoshi. Vexed at the loss of the precious water pitcher, Sutejiro could not bring himself to praise Hiyoshi at all, even though he thought the scheme was well devised for a boy of his age.
Hiyoshi went alone to the storehouse. He came out holding a wooden box and returned the key to the hand of his master, saying, "It would be best if you put out the light and quietly went back to bed. You needn't worry."
When he brought the box to Tenzo, the bandit, only half believing what was happening, opened it and examined the contents carefully. "Hm, this is it," he said. The lines of his face softened.
"You and your men should get out of here fast. When I was searching for this in the storehouse just now, I lit a candle. Kato and his samurai are probably waking up at this very moment, and will soon start to make their rounds."
Tenzo made hastily for the gate. "You come and call on me in Mikuriya anytime. I'll take you on." With these words he disappeared into the darkness.
The fearful night was over.
It was about noon of the following day. Because it was the first week of the New Year, an endless procession of guests, coming in twos and threes, made their way to the main house. Yet the atmosphere in the pottery shop was strangely uneasy. Sutejiro was moody and sullen, and his usually cheerful wife was nowhere to be seen.
Ofuku quietly went to his mother's room and sat down. She had not fully recovered from the nightmare of the previous night and lay in bed, her face a sickly white.
"Mother, I've just now come from talking with Father. It's going to be all right."
"Really? What did he say?"
"At first he was skeptical, but when I told him about Hiyoshi's behavior and the time when he grabbed me behind the house and threatened me, saying he'd call in the bandits of Mikuriya, he was surprised and seemed to think again."
"Did he say he'd dismiss him soon?"
"No. He said he still considered him to be a promising little monkey, so I asked him if he was of a mind to raise a thief's tool."
"From the very first, I disliked the look in that boy's eyes."
"I mentioned that too, and finally he said that if no one got on with him, there was no other recourse but to dismiss him. He said that because he'd taken charge of him from Kato of Yabuyama, it would be difficult for him to do it. He thought it would be better if we dealt with the matter and found some inoffensive pretext to dismiss him."
"Good. It's gotten to the point where I can't bear to have that monkey-faced boy working here for even half a day more. What's he doing now?"
"He's packing goods in the warehouse. Can I tell him you want to see him?"
"No, please don't. I can't stand the sight of him. Now that your father's agreed, wouldn't it be just as well if you told him that he's being dismissed as of today and sent him home?"
"All right," said Ofuku, but he was a little frightened. "What shall I do about his pay?"
"From the beginning, we haven't been held by any promise to put aside wages for him. And although he's not much of a worker, we've fed and clothed him. Even that is nore than he deserves. Oh well, let him keep the clothes he's wearing, and give him two measures of salt."
Ofuku was too afraid to say this to Hiyoshi all by himself, so he took another man with him to the warehouse. He peered inside and saw that Hiyoshi, working alone, was covered with pieces of straw from head to toe.
“Yes? what do you want?" Hiyoshi answered in an unusually energetic voice, bounding up to Ofuku. Thinking that talking about the events of the previous night wasn't a good idea, he had not told anyone about it, but he was very proud of himself—so much so that he secretly expected his master's praise.
Ofuku, accompanied by the brawniest of the shop's clerks, the one who most intimidated Hiyoshi, said, "Monkey, you can go today."
"Go where?" Hiyoshi asked in surprise.
"Home. You still have one, don't you?"
"I do, but—"
"You're dismissed as of today. You can keep your clothes."
"We're giving you this because of the mistress's kindness," said the clerk, holding out the salt and the bundle of Hiyoshi's clothes. "Since you don't have to pay your respects, you can leave right away."
Stunned, Hiyoshi felt the blood rush to his face. The anger in his eyes seemed to leap out at Ofuku. Stepping back, Ofuku took the bundle of clothes and the bag of salt from the clerk, put them on the ground, and hurriedly walked away. From the look in Hiyoshi's eyes, it seemed that he might chase after the retreating Ofuku, but actually couldn't see a thing; he was blinded by his tears. He remembered his mother's tear-stained face when she had warned him that if he was dismissed once more, she wouldn't be able to face anyone, and that it would be a disgrace for her brother-in-law. The memory of her face and body, so haggard from poverty and childbearing, made him sniff back his tears. His nose stopped running, but he stood there motionless for a moment, not knowing what to do next. His blood seethed with anger.
"Monkey," called one of the workers, "what's the matter? You messed up again, hhh? He told you to leave, didn't he? You're fifteen, and wherever you go they'll give you your meals at least. Be a man and stop blubbering."
Without stopping their work, the other workers made fun of him. Their laughter and jeers filled his ears, and he resolved not to cry in front of them. Instead, he swung around to face them, baring his white teeth.
"Who's blubbering? I'm sick and tired of this boring old shop. This time I'm going to serve a samurai!" Fixing the bundle of clothes on his back, he tied the bag of salt to a piece of bamboo and shouldered it jauntily.
"Going to serve a samurai!" jeered one of the workers. "What a way to say good-bye!” They all laughed.
Nobody hated Hiyoshi, but no one felt sorry for him either. For his part, once he had taken his first step beyond the earthen wall, his heart filled with the clear blue of the sky. He felt he had been set free.
* * *
Kato Danjo had fought at the battle of Azukizaka in the autumn of the preceding year. Impatient to distinguish himself, he had dashed into the midst of the Imagawa forces and had been so badly injured that he had been forced to come home for good. Nowadays he slept all the time in the house at Yabuyama. As the days became colder toward the end of the year, the spear wound in his stomach gave him constant trouble. He was always groaning with pain.
Oetsu took good care of her husband, and that day she was washing his pus-stained undergarments in a stream that ran through their compound. She heard a carefree voice ainging, and wondered who it might be. Annoyed, she stood up and looked around. Although the house was only halfway up Komyoji Hill, from inside the earthen wall it was possible to see the road at the foot of the hill, and beyond it the farmland of Nakamura, he Shonai River, and the wide Owari Plain.
It was bitterly cold. The New Year's sun was sinking hazily toward the horizon, bringing an end to another day. The singer's voice was loud, as if he had experienced neither the harshness of the world nor any human suffering. The song was a popular tune from the end of the last century, but here in Owari, farmers' daughters had corrupted it into a spinning song.
Well, can that be Hiyoshi? she asked herself as the figure reached the foot of the hill. He carried a dirty cloth bundle on his back, and a bag hung from the end of a bamboo rod over his shoulder. She was surprised at how big he had gotten in such a short time, and that, although he had grown so much, he was still as happy-go-lucky as ever.
"Auntie! What are you doing standing out here?" Hiyoshi bobbed his head in salutation. His song gave a certain cadence to his step, and his voice, so totally unaffected, gave his greeting a certain humorous tone. His aunt's expression was clouded; she looked like someone who had forgotten how to laugh.
"What are you doing here? Have you come with a message for the priests at the Komyoji?"
Hard put to answer, Hiyoshi scratched his head.
"The pottery shop let me go. I came here thinking I'd better let my uncle know."
"What? Again?" Oetsu said, frowning. "You came here after being sent away again?"
Hiyoshi thought about telling her the reason, but somehow it did not seem to be worth the trouble. In a sweeter tone he said, "Is my uncle at home? If he is, would you let me talk with him, please?"
"Absolutely not! My husband was badly wounded in battle. We don't know whether today or tomorrow will be his last day. You're not to go near him." She spoke bluntly, her tone severe. "I really feel sorry for my sister, having a child like you."
When he heard his aunt's news, he was dispirited. "Well, I wanted to ask my uncle a favor, but I guess it's useless, isn't it?"
"What kind of favor?"
"Since he's a samurai, I thought he could find me a place in a samurai household."
"What in the world! How old are you now?"
"At fifteen, you should know a bit about the world."
"That's why I don't want to work in any old boring place. Auntie, do you suppose there's an opening somewhere?"
"How should I know?" Oetsu glared at him, her eyes full of reproach. "A samurai household doesn't accept a man if he doesn't fit in with the family traditions. What are they going to do with a wild, carefree boy like you?"
Just then, a maidservant approached and said, "Madam, please come quickly. Your husband's pain is worse again."
Without another word, Oetsu ran to the house. Abandoned, Hiyoshi gazed at the darkening clouds over Owari and Mino. After a while he went through the gate in the earthen wall and hung around outside the kitchen. What he wanted most was to go home to Nakamura and see his mother, but he was held back by the thought of his stepfather who made him feel that the fence around his own house was made of thorns. He decide that his first priority was to find an employer. He had come to Yabuyama out of prudence, thinking it proper to inform his benefactor, but with Danjo in so serious a condtion, he was at a loss as to what to do next—and he was hungry.
While he was wondering where he would sleep from that night on, something so wrapped itself around his cold leg. He looked down to see a little kitten. Hiyoshi picked up and sat next to the kitchen door. The waning sun cast a cold light over them.
"Is your stomach empty too?" he asked. The cat shivered as he held it to his chest, Feeling the warmth of Hiyoshi's body, it began to lick his face.
"There, there," he said, turning his head away. He did not particularly like cats, but on that day the kitten was the only living creature to show him any affection.
Suddenly Hiyoshi pricked up his ears. The cat's eyes, too, widened with surprise. From a room next to the veranda had come the shrill cry of a man in pain. Presently, Oetsu came into the kitchen. Her eyes were swollen with tears, which she dried on her sleeve while stirring a medicinal concoction on the stove.
"Auntie," Hiyoshi began cautiously while petting the cat, "this kitten's stomach is empty and it's shivering. If you don't give it some food, it'll die." He avoided mentioning his own stomach. Oetsu ignored the remark.
"Are you still here?" she asked. "It'll soon be night, but I'm not letting you stay in this house."
She hid her tears with her sleeve. The beauty of the samurai's young wife, who h been so happy just two or three years before, had faded like a flower beaten by the rain. Hiyoshi, still holding the kitten, thought about his hunger and the bed that was beyond his reach. As he looked at his aunt, he suddenly noticed there was something different her appearance.
"Auntie! Your belly is big. Are you pregnant?"
Oetsu raised her head with a start as though her cheek had been slapped. The sudden question was completely out of place.
"Just like a little boy!" she said. "You shouldn't ask such forward questions. You're disgusting!" Exasperated, she added, "Go home quickly while there's still some light. Go to Nakamura or anywhere! Right now I don't care what you do." Swallowing her own choked voice, she disappeared into the house.
"I'll go," Hiyoshi muttered, and stood up to go, but the cat was not willing to surrenderr the warmth of his chest. At that moment a maidservant brought out a little bowl cold rice in bean paste soup, showed it to the cat, and called it outside. It promptly abandoned Hiyoshi to follow after the food. Hiyoshi watched the cat and its food with mouth watering, but it seemed no one was going to offer him anything to eat. He made up his mind to go home. But when he got to the entrance of the garden, he was challenged by someone with a keen sense of hearing.
"Who's out there?" asked a voice from the sickroom.
Rooted to the spot, Hiyoshi knew it was Danjo and promptly answered. Then, thinking the time had come, he told Danjo that he had been dismissed from the pottery shop.
"Oetsu, open the door!"
Oetsu tried to change his mind, arguing that the evening wind would make him cold and that his wounds would ache. She made no move to open the sliding door, until Danjo lost his temper.
"Fool!" he shouted. "What difference does it make if I live another ten or twenty days? Open it!"
Weeping, Oetsu did as she was told and said to Hiyoshi, "You'll only make him worse. Pay your respects and then leave."
Hiyoshi stood facing the sickroom and bowed. Danjo was leaning against some piled-up bedding.
"Hiyoshi, you've been dismissed from the pottery shop?"
"Hm. That's all right."
"What?" Hiyoshi said, puzzled.
"There isn't the least bit of shame in being dismissed, as long as you haven't been disloyal or unjust."
"Your house, too, was formerly a samurai house. Samurai, Hiyoshi."
"A samurai does not work just for the sake of a meal. He is not a slave to food. He lives for his calling, for duty and service. Food is something extra, a blessing from heaven. Don't become the kind of man who, in pursuit of his next meal, spends his life in confusion."
* * *
It was already close to midnight.
Kochiku, who was a sickly baby, was suffering from some childhood illness and had been crying almost incessantly. He was lying on bed of straw and had finally stopped nursing.
"If you get up, you'll freeze, it's so cold," Otsumi said to her mother. "Go to sleep."
"How can I, when your father isn't home yet?"
Onaka got up, and she and Otsumi sat by the hearth, working diligently on handiwork left unfinished that evening.
"What's he doing? Isn't he coming back again tonight?"
"Well, it is New Year's."
"But no one in this house—and especially you—has celebrated it with so much as a single millet cake. And all the time we have to work in the cold like this."
"Well, men have their own pastimes."
"Although we go on calling him master, he doesn't work. He only drinks sake. When he does come home, he abuses you all the time. It makes me mad."
Otsumi was of an age when a woman would ordinarily go off to get married, but she would not leave her mother's side. She knew about their money problems, and not even in her dreams did she think of rouge and powder, much less of a New Year's dress.
"Please don't talk like that," Onaka said in tears. "Your father isn't reliable, but Hiyoshi will become respectable someday. We'll get you married to a good man, although you can't say your mother has picked her own husbands well."
"Mother, I don't want to get married. I want to stay with you forever."
"A woman shouldn't have to live like that. Chikuami doesn't know it, but when Yaemon was crippled, we put aside a string of coins from the money we received from his lord, thinking that it would be enough for your marriage. And I've collected more than seven bales of waste silk to weave a kimono for you."
"Mother, I think someone's coming."
Otsumi stretched her neck to see who it was. "No."
"I don't know. Be quiet." Otsumi swallowed hard, suddenly feeling uneasy.
"Mother, are you there?" Hiyoshi called out of the darkness. He stood stock-still, making no move to step up into the other room.
"At this time of night?"
"I was dismissed from the pottery shop."
"Forgive me. Please, Mother, forgive me," he sobbed.
Onaka and Otsumi nearly tripped over their feet in their haste to greet him.
"What will you do now?" Onaka asked. "Don't just stand there like that, come inside." She took Hiyoshi's hand, but he shook his head.
"No, I have to go soon. If I spend even a single night in this house, I won't want leave you again."
Although Onaka did not want Hiyoshi to come back to this poverty-stricken house, she could not bear to think of him going right back out into the night. Her eyes opened wide. "Where are you going?" she asked.
"I don't know, but this time I'll serve a samurai. Then I'll be able to set both of your minds at rest."
"Serve a samurai?" Onaka whispered.
"You said you didn't want me to become a samurai, but that's what I really want to do. My uncle at Yabuyama said the same thing. He said now's the time."
"Well, you should talk this over with your stepfather too."
"I don't want to see him," Hiyoshi said, shaking his head. "You should forget about me for the next ten years. Sis, it's no good for you not to get married. But be patient, all right? When I become a great man, I'll clothe our mother in silk, and buy you a sash of patterned satin for your wedding."
Both women were weeping because Hiyoshi had grown up enough to say such things. Their hearts were like lakes of tears in which their bodies would drown.
"Mother, here are the two measures of salt the pottery shop paid me. I earned it working for two years. Sis, put it in the kitchen." Hiyoshi put down the bag of salt.
"Thank you," said his mother, bowing to the bag. "This is salt you've earned by going out into the world for the first time."
Hiyoshi was satisfied. Looking at the happy face of his mother, he was so happy himself that he felt as if he were floating. He swore he would make her even happier in the future. So that's it! This is my family's salt, Hiyoshi thought. No, not just my family's, but the village's. No, better yet, it's the salt of the realm.
"I guess it'll be quite a while before I'm back," Hiyoshi said, backing toward the outer door, but his eyes did not move from Onaka and Otsumi. He already had one foot out the door when Otsumi suddenly leaned forward and said, "Wait, Hiyoshi! Wait." She then turned to her mother. "The string of money you just told me about. I don't need it. I don't want to get married, so please give it to Hiyoshi."
Stifling a sob in her sleeve, Onaka fetched the string of coins and handed them to Hiyoshi, who looked at them and said, "No, I don't need them." He held the coins out to his mother.
Otsumi, speaking with the compassion of an older sister, asked, "What are you going to do out in the world without money?"
"Mother, rather than this, won't you give me the sword Father carried, the one grandfather had made?"
His mother reacted as though she had been struck in the chest. She said, "Money will keep you alive. Please don't ask for that sword."
"Don't you have it anymore?" Hiyoshi asked.
"Ah… no." His mother admitted bitterly that it had long since been sold to pay for Chikuami's sake. "Well, it doesn't matter. There's still that rusty sword in the storage shed, isn't there?"
"Well… if you want that one."
"It's all right if I take it?" Though he cared about his mother's feelings, Hiyoshi persisted. He remembered how badly he had wanted the shabby old sword at the age of six, and how he had made his mother cry. Now she was resigned to the idea of his growing up into what she had prayed he would never become—a samurai.
"Oh, well, take it. But Hiyoshi, never face another man and draw it from its scabbard. Otsumi, please go get it."
"That's all right. I'll go."
Hiyoshi ran into the storage shed. He took down the sword from the beam where it hung. As he tied it to his side, he remembered that six-year-old boy in tears, long years past. In that instant, he felt that he had grown up. "Hiyoshi, Mother wants you," said Otsumi, looking into the shed. Onaka had set a candle in the small shrine on the shelf. In a small wooden dish she had put a few grains of millet and a small pile of the salt Hiyoshi had brought. She joined her hands in prayer. Hiyoshi came in, and she told him to sit down. She took down a razor from the shrine. Hiyoshi's eyes opened wide. "What are you going to do?" he asked.
“I'm giving you your coming-of-age ceremony. Though we can't do it formally, we'll celebrate your departure into the world." She shaved the front of Hiyoshi's head. She then soaked some new straw in water and tied his hair back with it. Hiyoshi was never to forget this experience. And while the roughness of his mother's hands as they brushed his cheeks and ears saddened him, he was conscious of another feeling. Now I'm like everybody else, he thought. An adult.
He could hear a stray dog barking. In the darkness of a country at war with itself, it seemed that the only thing that grew greater was the barking of dogs. Hiyoshi went outside.
"Well, I'm off." He could say nothing else, not even "take care of yourselves"—it stuck in his throat.
His mother bowed low in front of the shrine. Otsumi, holding the crying Kochiku came running out after him.
"Good-bye," Hiyoshi said. He did not look back. His figure got smaller and smaller until it disappeared from sight. Perhaps because of the frost, the night was very bright.