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Short Story

Birds

It was the turbulent time of the Meiji Restoration period in 16th century feudal Japan. Wars ravaged across the island country and peace was only the stuff of dreams. Change was also taking place: Japan was on her way to becoming a nation-state under a central leadership. As a result, the noble Samurai - each bound usually to one of the thousands of feudal lords - were being wiped out...

Kuzokawa Village, Early morning

Sagara-san pushed aside the sliding paper-maché door and stormed into his room. His son, Inafune followed him in. The docile expression that Inafune usually wore had been replaced with that of anger, annoyance and exasperation. He disrespectfully slammed the door behind. Sagara-san feigned indifference to this emotional outburst, but Inafune knew that inside, his father was enraged at his behaviour. That gave him some satisfaction.

"Father?" questioned Inafune with some bitterness in his voice.

"You know that we are trying as hard as we can to locate him. I know he has been missing for quite some time, but given the circumstances, there is nothing you or I can do right now." Those were carefully measured words, and the calmness of his father's voice only angered Inafune further.

"Nothing? NOTHING? Father, you," Inafune almost spat, "are the head of the police station here! And Keiji was the son of the richest man in the village..."

"What does money have to do with this?" his father interrupted impatiently. "It's true the kidnappers do want ransom, but even if Okuwara-sama paid us to search harder and knowing him, he'd never - we can do no more at this stage. Instead, he should be gathering his money to pay the kidnappers at the allotted time. Let's hope he forgets his miserly attitude when it comes to the safety of his only son." There was something unusually cold about Sagara-san's voice when he said this.

"But Keiji was one of my friends, father! At least consider that! He wasn't just anybody!" Inafune nearly shouted.

Sagara-san turned his head around for the first time. Inafune's eyes widened: was it a trick of the morning light or was his father's face flushed with embarrassment?

Inafune's father turned his back to him again, took a small, barely noticeable breath and then faced his son completely. His face was inscrutable again. Sagara-san gave his son a look that a feudal lord would have balked under. Sternly he said, "Inafune. We are trying the best we can. Rest assured your friend will be returned safely and unharmed. You will wait and do nothing. If you dare disobey me, there will be dire consequences."

"But..." Inafune started.

"Leave my room. That will be all." That was the tone that no one in the whole village could argue with.
Inafune slowly exited.

Kuzokawa Village, Afternoon

"Does your father know anything at all about this?" said Inafune impatiently to a dapper teen with brown hair. Chouji's father was also one of the ten police personnel belonging to the minuscule station. His father was in charge of gathering intelligence. They were walking back from their favourite ramen shop.

"Sorry, even if he does he's not supposed to tell anyone but your father, the Chief, that is. Right?" Chouji replied. He held back a belch. Today's ramen was extra spicy.

"I guess so. Hmmm, I wonder where those kidnappers hide… they'd have to be somewhere near if they knew about Keiji and all." drawled Inafune absent-mindedly.

"Wait! Don't tell me you're thinking of trying something idiotic…" Chouji looked at him sharply.

Inafune put his hands behind his head and laughed. "Heck no! Even if it is my friend, I'm not the dumb, heroic type you read about in those paper novels. We live at the base of a mountain. There are thousands of caves, chasms and hiding places. There's a bigger chance of me falling into one and getting lost than finding Keiji. I guess we have no choice but to leave it to the police." Inafune finished bitterly.

Chouji suddenly pointed ahead and said excitedly, "Hey… isn't that, you know, that sign?"

Inafune looked up. Normally the door of his house was always open. This time it was slid shut and on the face was some Hiragana text painted in red. It said, "Birds". This was the sign that meant an important meeting was going on inside and no one in the whole village, except the officers, was allowed to come near the house.

"Chouji, you go back now, okay. There's something I need to see."

"If you're thinking of going to your h…" began Chouji.
"Just leave." Inafune gave Chouji the very glare he inherited from his father. Chouji shrugged, waved his hand and started going towards the east side of the village.

Inafune considered the situation. Since it was afternoon, there were almost no people on the village streets. Since this was a rather stupid time for spying, his father wouldn't have anyone guarding the house. Even then he'd have to be careful. Inafune therefore decided to go in through the kitchen. His mother would be out at his aunt's house.

Inafune slowly slid open one of the paper doors and softly entered. He closed the door immediately. Inafune walked cautiously around the side of the kitchen he knew only too tell how the central area creaked. The second he heard voices, Inafune stopped, knelt down and strained his ears. It was his father and Chouji's father talking in soft voices. Not exactly whispers but still hard to hear.

"…you're quite sure you don't want some saké?"
Inafune started.
"No, no… I don't think this is the time. We shouldn't be celebrating yet." That was Chouji's father.
"It's not that. You're nervous. I can see it in your mannerisms and your expressions. You need to calm down."
"It's okay, Sagara-sama. Let's just get over with it."

"Right. Okay, as you told me, Okuwara-sama has finally acceded. He will pay the sum of money tomorrow at dawn at the location specified. I want the men to be ready in the proper garb, okay?"

Inafune was excited. This meant that the police were going to try to capture the kidnappers! He'd try his best to tail them so he could see the action.

Chouji's father coughed. "But how is Keiji? You know…"

Sagara-san gave a small laugh and said, "He's perfectly fine. He seems to be enjoying himself. He's been talking to all the people there and he seems to have learned a lot about life. If only my son were as mature and open-minded. Keiji will be a great person when he grows, unlike his father. Infact, it was Keiji who gave us quite a lot of suggestions to make this plan work perfectly. I'm glad we didn't have to kidnap him by force."

Inafune's head spun. What was going on? The police kidnapped Keiji? Keiji was helping them out? Inafune jumped up and ran out, unable to take in what he heard.

Sagara-san heard the noise and smiled. Chouji's father was startled.
"Sir, there was someone inside the house! Sir, I should…"
"Stop worrying. I know. Inafune was listening to the conversation all this time."

"I see your skills from being a samurai have not waned at all. Your katana is always at the ready I assume?" Sagara-san nodded his answer. Chouji's father continued, "If the Shinsen-gumi ever knew that you had betr…"

Sagara-san stood up. "You know, there was no such betrayal. I do not expect such words from you, Shikamichi. You know what we stand for! Never forget the symbol on my door. Now, if you will excuse I must find Inafune. It's time he saw the truth behind the façade. He has to learn that there is no such thing as black or white."

Kuzokawa Lake, Evening

Inafune was hidden in the clump of bushes he had claimed as his personal hiding spot five years back. He was repeating the words the words he had just heard. He couldn't believe his father would kidnap anyone for the sake of money. And Keiji was helping them? Had they drugged him or something? He remembered his mother's stories about his father's fights as a samurai. He snorted. He couldn't believe he had actually looked up to someone like that. He was thinking of going back to the village and telling Okuwara-sama everything when someone softly grabbed his shoulder and turned him around.

It was his father. Sagara-san was smiling. Inafune wore an expression of pure contempt.

"Well, I see you're quite the angry one." Sagara-san was still smiling.

Inafune exploded inside. How could anyone still be smiling after all that!

"Well Inafune. Come with me. I've got something to show you. Keiji is waiting." With that Sagara-san firmly lead Inafune away.

Asamika Mountain Cave, Twilight

The climb was rather harsh and Inafune was completely out of breath but he had no time to steady himself. His mind was completely numbed as his brain tried to register the sight in front of him. An entire village was inside the hidden mountain cave. There were people walking about as if nothing had happened. It was just like Kuzokawa village! An entire group of people was living in a cave! Inafune felt his knees weakening. A few of the men waved at his father who returned them cheerily.

Someone punched Inafune in the jaw. It was Keiji.
"Baka! What took you?" Keiji was smiling from ear to ear.

Inafune couldn't find his voice. He spluttered out a faint "What…the hell…is going on here?"

Sagara-san smiled and began. "Inafune, you know how the authorities have been trying to root out and destroy any and all remnants of the Samurai. We can't let that happen. Samurai are humans too, not mindless warriors. But the Meiji Govt. doesn't see it that way. They fear that the Samurai are still loyal to the Tokugawa Shogunate and will attempt rebellion. However, the Samurai have no such plans. A few may, but most just want to live on with their lives. All the people here are Samurai and their families. They've gone into hiding in fear of being eradicated. The head of their group was a great friend of mine. He had foreseen this coming and had asked me to help should such a time arrive. That's why I'm here."
Inafune nodded.

His father continued. "I and Keiji's father were the only samurai of this village. For my plans to succeed I had no choice but to agree to the Meiji's protocol. Thus as per instructions, I set up a police station and pledged fealty to the Meiji. Many saw that as an act of dishonour and betrayal. Now you know why I'm not that popular in the village. On the other hand, Okuwara-sama chose to save his own skin. He used his money and influence to erase all his records and took advantage of the chaos. Thus, he is now an oil merchant with his pockets overflowing with money. Not once did he think about his fellow Samurai. By attaining my position, I was able to assure the Meiji that my village was safe and free from samurai. My officers were like-minded. In that way, our place has become a haven for those who have no identity in this period."

"But what about the kidnapping and…" asked Inafune.

Keiji cut in. "Let me explain. See, it's almost impossible for our village to help and sustain this hidden one. We and they can only do so much. We can't ask my father for any funding because he'd betray the village as soon as he found out what was going on. So it was decided that I would be kidnapped and the ransom money a rather huge sum I have to say would be used to help the people here. You know, we could buy them food, clothes, and stuff. Only me, you, your father and his subordinates know about this."

"I see" said Inafune, his voice dry.

"You should be proud of your father. There are people who make him into a villain for what he's doing. And there are people, as in those here, who think of him as a hero. At the same time what he did is both right and wrong. So you see, Inafune, there is no such thing as good or evil. Your father is doing what he firmly believes in, and that's what matters!"

Inafune turned around and looked at his father. His earlier thoughts completely vanished and awe and admiration filled his eyes. "Doing what you believe in…" he half-said to himself. His father smiled again.

"Come on Inafune, let's go visit the village. Let's talk to everyone!"

Keiji and Inafune set off.

Sagara-san stood watching them. "You'll be a fine man like your friend, Inafune. You've learned a lot about life today. I only hope that you too are willing to fight for what you believe in, like Keiji. Now you know what the symbol on my door really stands for: the freedom to do what you, and not others, think is right. As long as there are people like you, no matter what happens to this country, the future will be bright indeed." He smiled again and followed them down.

Footnotes:
1 'san' is used in order to be respectful towards elders or someone that one does not know personally
2 'sama' is used for people who are at a higher position than the speaker or as a term of respect for those who have power; also denotes 'lord'
3 'Hiragana' is a Japanese calligraphic text
4 Birds are symbolic in Japanese culture (and in other cultures) in how they represent 'freedom of the mind and soul', 'freedom to choose one's own path', et al
5 'Saké' is rice wine
6 Katanas are the curved swords used by Samurai
7 'Gumi' loosely translates to 'group'
8 'Baka' means idiot, moron, etc.

By Le Chupacabra


 
 

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