Chapter 1, Part 5

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Time In Remission (cont)

Tomoe swirled the dregs of her tea in the bottom of the cup. It was an old dilemma, that she felt most alive when she was fighting. Some of the things she’d done had sickened her, and yet, at the time, there seemed to be no other way. She had forced that unwanted guilt down time and again, but she could not help but love the sword, nor could she imagine her life without it.

“It was my mother who asked Hirosuke to go find me that day. He came out of the woods to the small beach where I was practicing the drills I’d seen. I was concentrating so hard I didn’t hear him come up behind me and I jumped like a startled rabbit when his hands grasped mine and corrected the position of the stick.

“He said little, beyond naming cuts and correcting my form. Once or twice he explained why the sword had to move the way it did. He sat down on a log and kept me at it, telling me to swing harder and faster, until my arms were trembling and my form became so bad that neither of us could stand it any more.

“It was so different from the way Shige had taught me naginata! Never once had Shige talked of power, or how the blade of the naginata would cut with this stroke or that. What she’d taught me were graceful, but empty forms.”

Izumi wondered how anyone could delight in learning how to kill, and yet she understood the frustration of being taught empty, meaningless things. She’d learned to use her naginata in battle, and Saburo had taught her in much the same way, once he realized she would not stay safely away from the fighting.

Finding meaning in death was one thing – she’d faced her own death enough times to know that to die standing between good and evil was something she could have been proud of, but to find meaning in the killing itself was something she had never come to understand.

Tomoe reached for the teapot and winced. As Izumi poured it for her, she wondered: was she missing something in Tomoe’s story? She longed to ask, but somehow could not.

Tomoe sipped her tea. “I stood there,” she said, “trying to control my breathing, until Hirosuke finally stood up and walked over. He pulled the stick from my hands and threw it far out into the water. In that moment I knew, I knew, that I would never be allowed out on my own again, never be allowed any time of my own. I looked at the rest of my life and saw nothing but cooking and sewing and running a house, and I cried as he walked me back to the house.”

Tomoe found those tears in her eyes again. So long ago, and yet that fate still – somehow – hovered over her. She knew it was no longer something she had to fear. Knew she would die before submitting to it and yet it still made her sick just to think of what might have been.

Izumi watched as Tomoe wiped tears from her cheeks with the sleeve of the jacket and felt her own eyes grow moist. She knew exactly how Tomoe felt, though she herself had not faced that fear until much later in life. As a child, she had… What? Ignored it? As hard as she tried she could remember how she’d felt about the life she’d been expected to lead.

“That is obviously not what happened.” She said, nodding in the direction of Tomoe’s sword.

“No.” Tomoe said, shifting against the futon so she could pull her legs in and sit up straight. Izumi was amazed at her resilience. A warrior needed the strength to continue on, even if wounded, but this was almost beyond belief.

“Your sword.” She said, “has seen quite a bit of use.”

Tomoe looked over at the chipped and bloodied blade. “Most of that is recent,” she said, reaching over to draw it toward her.

Izumi stiffened, her mind returning to the question of whether or not she should trust this woman. She wondered again if she should send for the officer in Toba or Hino, but she could not remember precisely where they’d stopped or which village was closer. In any event, there was no one to send. Tomoe had noticed her posture and pulled her hand back.

“Gomen.” She said. “That was rude of me. I was just thinking I should clean it.”

Izumi relaxed at the short bow Tomoe made and listened as Tomoe continued her story.

“Hirosuke said nothing and my mother simply thanked him for finding me. I went to bed worrying and slept badly. I almost didn’t go to watch the boys practice the next day, but no one had said anything, so I found my favorite branch in one of the pear trees and climbed up. My arms were so weak they felt like they’d been cut off and sewn back on – badly.

“If Hirosuke saw me, he said nothing, gave no sign at all. When he had dismissed the class, he picked up two of the practice swords and walked past the tree and into the woods. I could hardly believe my eyes, but there was no doubt in my mind that he intended for me to follow.

“He led the way back down to the beach where I practiced and turned to face me. ‘The sword’s for men,’ he said, ‘but I think maybe you have a man’s heart. It’s a sad thing for a woman, but every day more foreigners come to pollute our land and the day will come when the Emperor will need every warrior he can find. At any rate, we’ll find out. If you are ona masurao, then I’ll teach you the Kashima Shinryu style. But only if you promise never to speak of it! Sensei would kill me himself if he ever found out I taught a woman!’

“I think it was then that I knew my mother had sent him. I rarely heard him speak about politics, he always said it was enough for him to know the Lord he served was an honest man, but I’d heard her say much the same thing.

“I hesitated to answer. Not that there was a moment’s doubt, but I had heard my father say that a man’s tongue should be slower than his mind. So I put on my best ‘thinking face’ and counted to ten before promising my silence.

“He stared at me for a moment, then laughed and handed me the other sword. Every day for three years he taught me, and he never said anything more about my being girl, but I had no idea what he thought of me until my father was killed.

Tomoe looked back at the sword. “That sword has been in my family for generations.” She said. “It should have gone to my brother, but Hirosuke kept it for me.”

“Your brother is dead?”

“He was alive, six months ago.” Tomoe said, and tried not to think of that last meeting.

“Yet you have your father’s sword.”

“I was fourteen when they came for us. For over a year my parents had lived in fear as the Chancellor purged those he thought were a threat to the Bakufu. Everyone was careful who they talked with and what they said, afraid the wrong words would reach the wrong ears. It was a horrible time.”

Tomoe shook her head angrily. “My father never said anything except that the balance between the Court and the Bakufu should be restored. And he stopped saying that when the purge began, but you can’t take back words you’ve already said and, eventually, the conservatives decided my father was disloyal to the Shogun. We had just sat down to dinner when Hirosuke came banging at the gate. He told my father that Bakufu officials were on their way to arrest our whole family. My father just sat there.”

Izumi sat stunned. Her family was an old and honored line, known for it’s scholars and poets, and rarely involved in politics. She couldn’t imagine living with the fear of being branded a traitor.

“My father was to be executed and we were to be imprisoned. He couldn’t leave, but he begged Hirosuke to take the rest of us away and hide us. My mother refused to go and Grandma said she was too old and would only slow us down. In the end it was my brother and I that were hustled out the back gate and through the woods along the lake, then down along the river until it was dawn.

“When we stopped, he unwrapped one of the bundles he carried and laid out boy’s clothes for me to put on and shaved my head like my brother’s. It felt weird to feel the air against my scalp and as I rubbed my hand against the stubble, my brother laughed.

“ ‘Do not laugh!’ Hirosuke said. ‘They will be looking for a boy and a girl. If you do not treat her as your brother we will all be caught.’ My brother stopped laughing, but I could see it irritated him.

Tomoe thought again of the glare in her brother’s eyes. It was then the breach between them had opened and time had only widened it. He had called her ‘outcast’, that last time he was in Kyoto and found her still dressed as a man and living with Suki. Tomoe looked up at Izumi and wondered if she’d understand that.

And what of Suki? She would think Tomoe dead in the battle. Surely her ‘compatriots’ would report her so. Tomoe knew she could not go back to Kyoto, but she should find a way to send word. Send for her if she ever found a place she could live.

“Something wrong?” Izumi asked, seeing Tomoe lost in thought.

“No. Nothing.” Nothing she could share with this woman just yet, anyway.

“We traveled openly after that, along the river to Minato, and then by boat down to Kashima. There Hirosuke left my brother to study at the shrine, under his old Sensei. I envied him that, but it was something I could not do without being found out.

“We stayed at an inn in Kashima that night. ‘I do not know what to do with you,’ Hirosuke said as we ate dinner. ‘Neither of us can return to Mito.’

“ ‘Perhaps Kyoto,’ he said after a while. ‘I know people there who will hide us. And we can fight for the Emperor’.”

“He unwrapped the straw mat he’d been carrying and in it, was my father’s sword. ‘This is for you. Do not dishonor it,’ he said. All I could do was stare.”

“Did he say why?”

Tomoe shook her head. “He wouldn’t say any more,” she said. “He was like that to the end. I don’t think he ever really got used to the idea of a woman being good with a sword.”

“So you went to the capital?”

“It took weeks, but we got finally got there. I had been to Edo with my family once or twice, when my father traveled with the Daimyo, but Kyoto was too far and we’d never gone there, not even to visit my grandmother’s relatives.

“You have relatives here?”

“Distant ones. My grandmother’s family is from Kyoto and Uji.”

Izumi cocked her head. “I’m from Uji. Perhaps I know them.”

Tomoe smiled. “Perhaps. My great-great-grandmother was Ono Omiya. Her family raised tea on an estate by the lake.”

Izumi shuddered. The woman must be mad, she thought.

“That can’t be. I am Ono no Izumi. I run the only estate our family has in Uji and I have no ancestor by that name.