To be able to follow in your footsteps

I must know that you were not born of iron.

You must show me that Gods start out as men.

We were detailed by Lord Ichimaru to hold the bridge over the stream. Though the waters could be waded through, they were fast and cold with currents that were loyal to us. The spirits of the stream loved Lord Ichimaru’s ancestors, and they seemed excited by the tall pines that looked down on them, which they sought to impress with their speed. It was hard for men to cross the stream rapidly, and the banks nearest us were steep and high. But by means of the bridge the castle, whose gate was often left open for the sake of commerce, could be rushed. So Honorable Haga and I were assigned to guard it while the Honorable Watano’s company was diverted to escort Princess Aki to the orchards that were dear to her heart, far behind us. Love has caused a lot of problems in the world, and that day was no exception.

When Haga San and I were all alone by the bridge, Lord Nonaka’s advance-guard appeared suddenly on the other side of the field that reminded us of Basho’s poem: Summer grass, what’s left of warrior’s dreams. Their helmets and armor made them look like the spirits of a cliff, which delights when men fall off of it. They moved quickly forward, like the tall reeds of the field, bending in our direction, as a strong wind blew behind them. The waves of bending grass, coming ever closer, carried spears.

"Killed by beautiful peach blossoms!" Haga San exclaimed, referring to the beauty which had lured the princess and her escort away from the castle, orchard-viewing, and left us two alone, to hold the bridge. "Damn the spies!" he added. Supposedly, we had men by Lord Nonaka’s castle. How is it that they had failed to warn us?

Horrified, I looked over at Haga San, and I saw the look in his eyes – terror and desperation. Two men against fifty. Then, something happened. The fear in his eyes turned to fury, which was still helpless, like a child being beaten for merely eating a cherry – maybe it was someone else’s tree, but how would a child know? The injustice infuriates him, but those who have misjudged him tower over him, and there is nothing he can do except to take the beating. Then the fury gave way to something approaching mirth, a ruthless laughter of light at his own expense: Fate can be so amusing! Then Haga San’s eyes seemed to harden; something inside him pushed the last trace of fright out of his pupils, like a great rock he had to shove out of his path. And then, his face was serene, cold, and decided. "Warn the castle!" he barked, like a great dog who happened to speak Japanese. I hesitated.

"Warn the castle!" he shouted again, drawing his sword as if he meant to use it to behead my indecisiveness.

I turned back towards the castle and ran as fast as I could, my fear well-concealed by his orders.

I did not see what happened, but it is assumed by all that he met the enemy halfway out on the bridge. There, it seems he killed several of them before a handful of warriors who managed to cross the stream below the bridge were able to get up on the bank behind him, so that he could then be attacked from two sides at once. The men who later examined his body said it had been run through three times by a spear and been slashed by swords at least four times. "Haga San fought like a tiger," they said. "In five minutes, he gave his family five-hundred years worth of honor."

If Haga San was a tiger as he died, I was a swallow as I fled. Not a soul was close to me when I finally reached the open castle gate to sound the warning. Inside our compound, we managed to resist Lord Nonaka’s impetuous assault, and to get a message off to Watano San, who escorted the princess away from the battlefield to the castle of our good friend, Lord Komura, where she was able to remain in complete safety until the danger had passed.

Once, as a boy, I remember watching a duel in which one combatant’s sword was broken after striking a powerful stone behind his adversary. In this very same way, Lord Nonaka’s army was broken by the walls of our castle.

Amidst the ample numbers of Lord Ichimaru’s men which sheltered me, I felt great tension and wild excitement, but it was not quite panic, and no one could tell that my sword struck down the enemy in fear, rather than indifference. I was turbulent, not savage; jumpy, not clear. But the enemy, which had counted on surprise to overwhelm us, was disheartened by how quickly we rallied; and not prepared for strong resistance, it lost its will.

When they retreated, we pursued, and they jumped like frogs into the water once they blocked their own escape across the bridge by fleeing towards it in numbers it could not accommodate.

It was at this time that we finally discovered Haga San’s body.

I tell this story, which was the beginning of my military career as a samurai of some repute, for the following reason: until that time, I had thought myself well-prepared for combat. I had been trained by master swordsmen. I was outstanding in the practice hall, both with wooden swords, and in touch-fighting. I had also studied with the monk Kanzan. He taught me the illusion that life is, the certainty of death and pointlessness of fear, the reality of honor, which is the fruit of the warrior’s divine task, which he plucks from the high tree of duty. In a universe that has no substance, that, alone is solid: the dharma. We meet the emptiness with emptiness, and therefore we are who we are meant to be. We do not attempt to write on the flowing stream, and therefore, our deeds are eternal; like the spirit of the cherry tree, we are not a single life, we are all time, and every cherry tree. Loyalty to the spirit of honor is our one task: the flesh does not exist to save itself, but to carry this spirit.

All this Kanzan taught me. I had the sword and the teachings of a great monk. I had everything I needed to be a great warrior.

But on that day when I faced Lord Nonaka’s rapidly approaching advance-guard alone, with Haga San, I discovered that I was not the warrior I thought I was. Until then, I had imagined myself supremely courageous and unflappable, but the moment of truth unmasked me. Though no one noticed but myself, I knew I felt fear, terrible fear; my hand was shaking, and those I killed died only because they were even less prepared than I was. Outwardly, they charged like tigers, but inside, they were fleeing like deer as they charged, they were like a body that wants to feel the warm water of a bath all around it; they had not given up on themselves, and therefore, they were weak.

Though we celebrated victory that evening, I was ashamed of myself. I knew I was incomplete. I had mastered the sword, and I had learned Master Kanzan’s teachings, but I was still lacking one thing needed to be a great warrior.

For acquiring that, I must remain eternally grateful to Haga San. He gave me what I lacked that day. It was the look in his eyes.

When someone asked me what I meant when I told him this, years later, after I had rightly won my reputation as a true samurai, I had to explain it to him. At first, he thought I meant that what turned me into a great warrior was the brave look in Haga San’s eyes, as he prepared to face Lord Nonaka’s troops alone on the bridge that day. "It must have been very inspiring," he told me.

"It was," I said. "But that is not what was missing from my knowledge, and what made me great."

"What, then?" he asked me.

I answered: "It was the look in Haga San’s eyes before courage came into them."


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