I’ve been working on the final novel in my YA fantasy trilogy over the past couple months, along with editing Murderous Requiem for it’s scheduled release of April 8th, but over the past week or so I’ve been bitten by the Japanese culture bug again. I’m not sure why, but every year since I was about 17, I have a short attack of Japanese culture. I get obsessed with Japanese movies and dig out my Japanese language books and CDs and start eating Japanese food.
It was during one of these “attacks” that I began an adaptation of a Japanese story written in the 17th century by Ihara Saikaku called “The Tragic Love of Two Enemies,” about a samurai in love with a young man who doesn’t know that the samurai killed his father. It’s been difficult going, because of all the research I’ve had to do to keep the feudal setting believable and I’m probably only half done with it. But I dug it out and dusted it off yesterday and was very pleased with what I’ve written so far.
Here’s one of the scenes I like. Shinosuke is the young man (18-years-old in my story, though he was younger in the original) and the samurai is Senpachi. At this point in the story, the attraction between the two characters is clear to both of them, but Senpachi has been resisting it. They’ve decided to take a break from sword-fighting practice to relax in the shade of a cherry tree.
Senpachi stretched out on the petal-strewn grass, alongside Shinosuke. This brought them physically closer than he’d allowed them to be, since that first evening in the ofuro. But the moment seemed to warrant it.
“Let me tell you a story. When I was about your age, there was a man—Sato Haruki. He was…older, and very experienced on the battlefield. He’d fought at Seikigahara. We were both assigned to the same unit, under the command of your father. Haruki took me under his wing. He taught me how to fight and the way of bushi….” Senpachi hesitated a moment, concerned that what he was about to say might encourage the youth in his attentions. But he would not dishonor Haruki’s memory by hiding their relationship, as if it were something he was ashamed of. “He also taught me how to love.”
The word hung in the air between them, Shinosuke saying nothing, but his expression indicating that he understood. Senpachi cleared his throat and continued. “Haruki also taught me how to face death.”
“What do you mean? Did he die?”
“On the battlefield?”
“On a hunting trip. There were six of us, all on horseback. Something spooked Haruki’s horse, as we crossed through a field. Before he could get the animal back under control, he fell off. We all thought it was funny, at first, and we laughed.” The samurai smiled faintly at the memory, though there was little joy in it. “Haruki had landed badly, and we soon realized that his back was broken. He couldn’t move, and he felt nothing when I squeezed his hands and legs. Though he could still speak and even joke about us having to strap his sword to his forehead for his next battle, we all knew—he knew—that he would be dead soon. I don’t know how long he might have held on, but Haruki saw no point in dragging out his death. He asked me to kill him.”
Shinosuke drew in his breath involuntarily, and his eyes expressed a small amount of the horror Senpachi had felt at that time. Senpachi was only fifteen. He’d never killed a man. And now the first man he killed was going to be the man he loved. All these years later, the pain the memory brought back to him was still agonizing.
“Our friends led the horses away from us,” Senpachi said, when he trusted himself to speak, “so we could be alone together, in Haruki-kun‘s last moments. Then I drew his wakizashi and leaned down to kiss him. While our lips were still touching, I pierced his heart with his own blade.”
He realized that his hands had clenched themselves into fists so hard that his nails were cutting into his palms, so he forced himself to relax them. Haruki-kun…. He still longed to beg his lover for forgiveness, though he knew Haruki hadn’t blamed him—had, in fact, wanted him to do it. It had been necessary. And it was, after all, merely the first in a long, long line of painful regrets.
Shinosuke spoke quietly. “It must have been terrible.”
For a moment, Senpachi couldn’t answer. Then at last, he said, “It was. I couldn’t eat or sleep for several days, and I wept until…I had no more tears to weep.”
“I could never have done it.”
A gentle breeze shook some cherry blossom petals down upon Shinosoke, and some stuck in his ink-black hair. It was a soft, beautiful image that contrasted sharply with the story of pain and death Senpachi was relating to him. Without thinking, the samurai reached up and plucked some the petals out of Shinosuke’s hair. “I wouldn’t have thought I could, either. Not until that moment. But being a samurai means putting your duty ahead of your own needs. Haruki deserved an honorable death, and it was my duty to give it to him. Had I failed, he would have died, anyway. But his death would have been slow and painful and undignified.”
As if they had a will of their own, Senpachi’s fingers floated along the youth’s hair, barely touching, until they came down to touch skin, gently following the line of Shinosuke’s cheek. The youth closed his eyes, making no attempt to pull away. But as soon as Senpachi realized what he was doing, he jerked his hand back.
His voice was gruff when he spoke. “We should get back to practice.”