A story from the world of Samurai’s Blood
by Owen Wiseman
It begins with a fish. He is eight years old, already quick enough and smart enough to sneak up and get his fingers under the fish far enough to flip it up out of the water and onto the bank. He stands between the writhing creature and the water, to keep it from flopping towards escape, but he does not reach for a rock to end it. He watches it die slowly, and feels for the first time that perfect detachment, that invincible, floating, whiplash high of dominion over life and death. It is only a fish, not nearly so powerful as the spirits he will soon command, but it is his first and it is that fish which sets the hook deep within his own jaw. It is that fish which makes Mitsumo Tomotori—fourth son of Mitsumo Iwada, Lord of Bifu Castle—fall in love with death.
A year goes by. He thinks often of the fish, but life is busy and he has few opportunities to slip away and be alone. Then one evening he captures a bird that lands on his open windowsill. He grabs it by the neck and squeezes with his tiny fingers as the bird flaps and tries to claw its way free. Eventually the bird’s effort slackens. It cannot breathe. But rather than let it die, he releases it with just a spark of life left inside, and instead stomps on its wings, making sure to snap them both. He spends most of the night sitting alone, watching the bird drag itself around his quarters trying to find its way back aloft, and it is his only happy memory of being nine years old.
Two more years go by with only these petty crimes. Tomotori is eleven years old. Meanwhile, the lowest-ranking of the sons of Mitsumo Iwada is quickly becoming the best swordsman. He battles his older brothers fiercely, and at thirteen he defeats the eldest, a proud samurai of twenty-two years who cannot look his father in the eyes after retrieving his wooden sword from the rich courtyard grass of their grand castle. Pride shines on Tomotori’s face at his victory, but when he turns to his brother he sees the hatred that has settled there.
Tomotori looks back to his father, with hope still shining on his face, and at that one moment, if he had found what he was looking for on the face of Mitsumo Iwada, everything may well have changed for Tomotori. He might have stopped loving death. But he does not find what he is looking for, because Mitsumo Iwada is not looking at him. The old man is looking at his older brother, the meaningless brother he had just defeated, and Iwada is exhorting him, demanding more and better and harder. And it is then that Tomotori realizes that there is no competition between them at all. He strove to be a better sword than his eldest brother, but they are not both swords. They are different tools, different sons, moving through different passages and unable to cross over. The world around them swirls, the hand of servant turning against master as the civil strife of Sengoku-Jidai winds itself down, and men change their destinies by conquest as Japan is united once more. Yet in this world that is their castle, the world where Mitsumo Tomotori is prisoner, he is one thing and his eldest brother is another thing. Their destinies are immutable.
His brother hates him, and that means everyone hates him, because his brother is going to be lord one day and so everyone aches to please him. Their father pits brother against brother, and every night Tomotori is victorious. As they grow older and Tomotori comes into his full powers, the beatings get worse. Servants come to Tomotori’s quarters and beg him to throw the matches, to allow his brother to win for everyone’s sake, but he refuses. He is merciless. But every night, standing over his brother’s bloody form, he looks to his father and finds the old man’s eyes averted, staring instead at his eldest son, willing him to be something he is not.
Meanwhile, Tomotori piles up suffering and death to move mountains. He stalks the castle grounds at dawn and dusk, hunting vermin, on pretext of training but truly so that he might take any captives back to his room for experimentation. He evolves from simple murders to vivisections. He comes into possession of a small, leather bag, open on three sides but with ties to keep it closed. Inside the small bag, held in by straps that he makes himself, is the collection of knives and metal pokes that he uses as instruments of vivisection.
He turns fourteen on a perfect day just as the cherry blossoms are falling in the courtyards. He is presented with a katana and matching wakizashi. All his father’s samurai retainers and many of the palace staff gather. A condemned prisoner enters the courtyard. The man is not blindfolded, and Tomotori looks long into his eyes. The assembled samurai murmur, for he does not tremble as most boys in their memories trembled. He looks at his father, and his father finally looks right straight into his eyes for the first time in what seems like years. His father draws the katana from its scabbard and hands it to him. He turns and looks at the prisoner again. He has grown used to hiding his thirst for blood, through the long nights of furry little bodies, and so now he tries to wipe away the smile that wants to creep onto his face, but as that blade bites into the man’s neck and slices through clean, he cannot help himself. He grins and releases a roar of what can only be called triumph, and yet his father turns his back on him once more after that night, despite his bravery. And so Tomotori’s heart is hardened. There is nothing to be done.
Tomotori begins to seek more opportunities to kill. Vivisecting animals no longer excites him now that he has tasted human spirit, and he begins to regret having performed the vivisections in the first place. He throws away his leather bag with his tools, and he stops searching the castle for vermin. That he used to do this strange thing becomes a deep and shameful secret, as time piles on top of it, and he tries to bury his deep, dark impulses under the veneer of justified killing. He volunteers to carry out executions. When he cannot find someone to kill, he will walk through a crowded market, hand to his sword, knowing that people will recognize him, just to see the fear on their faces at the thought of what he might do.
And still the nightly battles of brother against brother continue, and still Tomotori is victorious each and every time. His brother is one of the finest swordsmen in the province, but no match for Tomotori’s viciousness. He fights without style and without mercy, winning with quickness and endurance and ruthlessness. But all this skill cannot bring understanding, and Tomotori cannot understand his father’s aloofness, or his brother’s hatred. Tomotori becomes a ghostly presence in the castle. No one speaks to him. No one looks him in the eye. It is as if he is slowly ceasing to exist.
Then one night, a night much like all the others, save perhaps for some petty annoyance that proves too much to bear, Tomotori and his brother duel in the courtyard while the sun goes down and their father watches. Tomotori is aged sixteen and his brother is aged twenty-five. Five years and more they have fought this way. For three of those years, Tomotori has been the victor, and each night, once victory was assured, he lowered his own sword and offered his brother assistance in rising. Not so this night. This night he beats his brother into the ground and continues beating. He beats him until the wooden sword breaks and then he beats him with the handle. He hears the crack of bone and the cries of mercy, but he does not stop. Not until he hears his father’s voice. When that clarion yell rings out he stops, face splashed with his brother’s blood, and turns to the old man, and again their eyes meet, right on, and the father really, truly looks at his son.
The next day the order comes by messenger. Tomotori is to take only a dozen men and see to the destruction of the Mitsumo Clan’s hated enemy, the Maeda Clan, at their seaside stronghold. It is a suicide mission. Tomotori laughs in the face of the messenger. He sends a message of enthusiastic acceptance to his father. He chooses twelve petty criminals to accompany him, takes them with hands bound out into the forest, and forces them to fight to the death, with the promise that one will live and go free. Once that last poor bastard has killed all the others, Tomotori slits his throat. He does not dispose of the bodies. He leaves them in the forest for the animals, as payment for all the torturing nights of his childhood.
He goes with light feet to the Maeda Clan’s castle, buoyed by all the death in his wake. He reconnoiters the village outside the castle, and discovers where the various gate guards live. He follows them for weeks on their road to and from the castle, listening to them talk and studying their voices. He finally chooses the one he thinks is the biggest coward. He kidnaps the man’s wife and daughter, and it turns out that Tomotori is a good judge of character, because the man agrees to let him into the castle as ransom.
Tomotori sneaks into the castle on the night of a feast. He moves through the entire structure, setting fires and murdering guards, enough to send the whole wooden castle to ashes. Then, in the chaos and the smoke, disguised in a stolen uniform, he slips in amongst the bodyguards of Maeda Dogen, and slides a knife between the patriarch’s ribs. Tomotori slips away without notice, and the incident is later blamed on other parties, but before he returns to his home castle, Tomotori returns to the house of the cowardly gate guard, and kills him, along with his wife and child. Not because he is afraid they will implicate him, but for the same reason he used to vivisect those animals in those long, sweaty nights, with the tools from his leather case. He goes back and kills those people because for Tomotori, the act itself has meaning. Some kill with heavy hearts, and some kill with hardly a thought, but very few kill in the same way that artists paint or sculptors sculpt. Yet Tomotori is one of those.
He returns to his father’s castle and is given a hero’s welcome. He is triumphant. His boldness and daring have finally overcome the lowness of his birth. He sees his eldest brother and some of the hatred has simply evaporated from his eyes, the way it sometimes can for men who must contemplate being stabbed with a sword, and so who are happy to avoid a fight. All those eyes which were averted are shining now. He will not rule, not take his brother’s place, but he has respect, and that is enough. And so there comes another moment where it seems as if he has a chance to turn it all around.
That night, he asks his father why he was hated for so long. What had he done that had made it necessary for him to destroy so many enemies to make it right? And his father tells him, with unusual bluntness, that every single person in the castle knew about his vivisections and his cruelty when he was a child, and that they all thought he was cursed, and that perhaps he still is cursed, but some curses can work in someone’s favor some of the time, and that as long as he only kills the people he is told to kill he will be allowed to stay. Only Tomotori does not hear many of his father’s words after the first few, because the shame wells up inside him so hard and so fast that it becomes a literal roar and blots out all other sound.
And oh, that shame. That old secret that he had stuffed away is not just revealed but revealed as never a secret at all. The only person who did not know the real secret was him, and now he feels all at once those long years of whispered conversations and snickers that must have taken place all around him, while he lived in that pathetic world of secret hiding spots and little leather cases.
He does not show the shame on his face. He calmly expresses it to his father, and abases himself before him. He begs forgiveness and receives it, then goes out into the castle and walks with his head high. He resolves not to linger in the past, but to start fresh. Yet by the time he reaches his quarters, he knows that is impossible. Every eye on him is a reminder of his burning shame. It consumes him that night, and every night thereafter, until one night, a night filled with storms, he realizes that the only way the world can come to life again is for everyone who knows this secret to die.
And so he picks up the katana and the wakizashi that his father had given to him, and he uses the thunder and the storm for cover as he stalks the hallways, until he reaches his father’s quarters. He kills the guards outside without speaking a word to them, then enters, and stabs his father in his sleep. The old man’s eyes shoot open, and his mouth works like a caught fish, which reminds Tomotori of that first fish, by the riverbank when he was eight years old, the day he fell in love with death.
Tomotori gets very close to his father, and looks right down into his eyes for the last time. He touches his father’s face, the first time he has ever done so. The old man tries to speak, but can only get out three syllables, three disconnected sounds from a sentence lost to the winds of death: A—RA—KU. Then he is gone.
Tomotori smiles his last smile of his old life, and embraces his new name. Araku he shall be, once and forever more, and he swears on his father’s blood that all who hear that name will fear it. Araku stalks through the castle, setting fires and killing his brothers one by one. The eldest is last, and he does not struggle. He knows he is beaten and dead the moment Araku walks in the door. In the morning, when the fire has died to ashes, the Mitsumo Clan is no more, just as Araku had intended.
Araku heads north. He spends a decade moving slowly across the country, traversing the newly established domain of the Tokugawas, never thinking or hearing of his family or their castle or their fortunes again. He has forsaken all that he was. He desires no lands or castles or power, beyond the power of his sword. He eats little food, but feasts on the fading light from a thousand dying eyes, and the gurgling screams from a thousand dying tongues. He does not think of the past or the future. He is a Lord no more.
And then, long after the people of his home province have stopped talking about the fate of the Mitsumo Clan, long after some other family has seized power and built a new castle atop the ashes of the old, Araku arrives in Dewa Province, and hears the name Sanjo for the first time. He hears of their goodness, and of their proud history, of their benevolence, and for the first time in a decade his heart is filled with desire. He is weary of the road, weary of the privations of life as a nomad. He decides that he will enter the service of the Sanjo Clan, and in time, will destroy them.