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Fiction #41
(published May 24, 2001)
Osai's Razor
by Andrew Wilson

In the mountains, the road seemed to end in the sky. Ranks ofsnow-covered pines climbing into the gray twilight of cloud.

At the Iko Pass, Retsudo showed his traveling certificate to a bored young official, barely old enough to grow a moustache. Snow was blowing out of a low bank of clouds. The official scrutinized the seal carefully, then looked Retsudo up and down as he stood wrapped in his traveling cloak and a straw hat dusted with snow.

A high ranking Kobe samurai, eh? What're you doing up here without a horse or a sword?

Retsudo had left his long and short swords with Koshiba, asking that they be returned to Kobe Castle with his armor, and taken along for protection only Koshiba's sturdy walking staff.

I'm visiting the Iko Shrine and hot springs, he said.

Ah, a pilgrim. I admire religious zeal. Go on, then. You'll find an inn just around the bend there.

Retsudo bowed, folding the certificate carefully before he replaced it into his wallet.

Thank you.

He glanced back once over his shoulder as he strode up the rough track. The young official had ducked inside the small guard-house. Light shone through the papered window into the bleak dusk. Retsudo could hear shouts, laughter, and playing cards being slapped down inside.

Then, after he walked a few more steps, the guard-house disappeared, and all that Retsudo could hear was the sigh of snow falling in a wind-driven rush and the creaking of ice-laden pine branches.

When he removed the cloth wrappings that bound his feet, Retsudo discovered that two of the toes on his left foot were white with frostbite.

He shouted out for a basin of hot water.

The girl who brought it into the small room - the inn keeper's daughter — looked to be about thirteen years old. She gasped when she saw Retsudo's naked foot. But, instead of fleeing from the room to get her mother, she shuffled close to him.

Here, she said.

She lifted Retsudo's foot onto her lap and began to rub the toes hard between her fingers.

Retsudo shut his eyes as the toes began to throb.

Does it hurt? The girl asked in a small voice.

He nodded.

Good, that's good.

As he watched the girl massage his bare foot, her head lowered so that loose strands of dark hair hung over her face, he could not help thinking of Osai. His mouth went dry, and the skin at his temples throbbed as if stretched too tight.

If he had approached the Instructor with an offer of marriage a year ago, wouldn't everything now be different? Why had he been so cold to Osai, so disdainful of her feelings?

The sensual thrill he felt on gazing at the innkeeper's daughter caused him anguish as Osai's face floated before his mind's eye again and again.

She dipped her fingers in the steaming water and rubbed the toes between them. The girl's fingers were slippery. She was rubbing so vigorously that her robe came slightly open at the neck and Retsudo saw the firm flesh underneath.

Good. That's enough, he said.

Hai, samurai, the girl said.

He withdrew his foot from her lap and, sitting up, looked closely at it. The toes were no longer pale. Jolts of pain shot through him.

The girl had moved away, close to the door. She bowed her head when he looked at her. The hair was lustrous and silken in the lamplight.

I am grateful, he said. I have money for you.

No, samurai, sir, the girl said.

You may go, then, he said.

He was surprised to hear, in his own voice, a note of deep and forlorn yearning.

She bowed and left the room, sliding the door shut softly behind her.

In the morning, she stood at the door clutching her coat around her, waving to him frantically with one arm as he set off on the twisting road. There were spots of red in her cheeks.

At each step he felt jolts of pain. He walked faster and faster, as if chased by a horde of demons.

Dense fog turned gradually to a chilling rain as Retsudo Iyedo descended on the narrow mountain road into the wide valley which held the Yagyu village.

It was a country village arranged on either side of a brown, swiftly flowing river. The thatched-roof houses were solid, ancient, their earthen walls dark with grime. The rice paddies were now flooded, reflecting the clouded sky and shimmering dully as rain fell into them.

Retsudo approached one of the larger of these houses, isolated in a cluster of rice paddies and, standing at the doorway as water poured from his hat, shouted out his name to those within.

A wizened man in a faded blue underkimono appeared — he could have been young or old, there was no way of telling — and gazed at Retsudo in surprise.

Retsudo bowed.

Retsudo Iyedo, of the Kobe fief, asks for shelter for a few hours from this weather, and then for directions to the residence of Sir Shichi Yuzen.

Yuzen? the man asked, in a dense country accent.

The swordsmith.

Ah, the Korean!

That is so. May I enter?

Please, the man said, stepping aside, and Retsudo stepped into the dry entranceway paved with flagstones. He removed the straw coat, the hat, and sandals. He was shivering.

Are you a merchant? the man asked.

No. A simple traveler.

You speak like a samurai.

As I told you, Retsudo told him. A simple traveler seeking shelter, warmth and information.

Then enter, the man said. I am Uejo Mitoshi. These are my family.

Retsudo looked up to see three boys, of different ages, regarding him solemnly from just inside the doorway, and a gray-and-black haired woman standing behind with an uncertain smile. She bowed to him, and he bowed in return. All of the children solemnly bowed.

Tell me, what's a samurai doing without his swords? the man said. Then, laughing, he tapped Retsudo's shoulder with a finger: Maybe that's just what you want out of the Korean, eh?

As Retudo seated himself as close as possible to the sunken central hearth filled with glowing embers, Mrs. Mitoshi placed a bowl of scalding hot green tea in his hands.

He bowed.

I am grateful.

She gave an embarrassed half bow and retreated quickly to the kitchen — a dark, narrow space at the far end of the main room, where she knelt and occupied herself stirring coals in a huge clay oven.

You will eat with us, said Mr. Mitoshi, as Retsudo sipped the tea noisily. Do you like dumplings?

For the first time in days, Retsudo Iyedo began to feel warm. He had changed out of his damp clothes in the loft of the house as the boys spied on him, giggling, from the staircase. Mr. Mitoshi had lent him a clean padded kimono and a thick, patched cotton jacket and clean tabi, and had even brought him hot water, a razor, and a shard of mirror to use in shaving himself.

He had never eaten dumplings.

Oh yes. I love them.

Mr. Mitoshi laughed ecstatically, his face all lines and furrows. He tapped Retsudo's shoulder.

A samurai who loves dumplings! And who doesn't carry swords! The world must be coming to an end!

Are you a swordsman, Sir? the eldest boy asked. He was standing nearby; his voice trembled with the effort it took to speak up.

Retsudo turned to gaze at him.

No, he said.

The boy frowned.

I practice with the spear, Retsudo said.

The boy's eyes widened. His brothers, lurking behind him, squealed in unison.

The spear! shouted Mr. Mitoshi, tapping Retsudo's shoulder again. A real samurai's weapon! I've heard stories about spearmen in the civil wars that could fight off a whole army!

Mr. Mitoshi mimed swinging a spear, and made the slicing sounds of the blade — swish, swish, swish.

You can kill a horse with a spear, the boy said.

That's true, said Retsudo.

Why would you want to kill a horse? Mr. Mitoshi shouted, his voice full of chagrin. Really, Sir Iyedo, you wouldn't kill a horse, would you? They're too valuable!

You're right, Retsudo said. They are very valuable, and are also handsome creatures. That's why I avoid killing horses whenever possible.

The two younger boys shrieked.

Have you ever killed a man with your spear? the oldest asked seriously.

Mr. Mitoshi's grin vanished.

Don't bother the honorable samurai with your foolish questions! he shouted to the boy. Shoo!

Then, to Retsudo, with an exaggerated bow:

Please excuse the boy, Sir Iyedo. He is too curious for a the son of a rice farmer.

But Retsudo continued to gaze at the boy, who stood his ground uncomfortably, the brilliant gaze of those round, dark eyes fixed on his.

Finally, he swallowed and, in a deeper voice than before — a voice that sounded dreamlike to him — said:

No, I haven't.

The boy let his shoulders fall and puffed out his cheeks.

Really, it's better not to have to kill people, don't you think so?

Ah! Better to be a rice-farmer, right? Mr. Mitoshi chortled. Like me! Or a dumpling-eating samurai like yourself!

The boy shrugged and blew out a stream of air between his lips.

Sure. I guess.

Shoo! Off with you! Mr. Mitoshi shouted. We've had enough of your insolence!

The boy turned his back on them and strode off with a dignity Retsudo admired.

Mr. Mitoshi clapped his hands once, then rubbed them together feverishly.

Hey Mother, he cried, where are those dumplings?

You'll get your dumplings, Father, Mrs. Mitoshi said from out of the deep shadows.

In the morning, the sky was clear — the rice paddies shone brilliantly in sunlight.

Uejo Mitoshi led the way nimbly along paths on the earthen embankments criss-crossing the paddy fields.

Retsudo was wearing his traveling clothes again, but these had been freshly washed and then dried, steaming, over the central hearth the night before. His toes were causing him less agony than they had just a few days before. He thumped the earth happily with Soemi Koshiba's walking staff at each long stride.

It took the two an hour to reach the base of the mountains on the other side of the Yagyu valley. There they rested for a half hour, devouring rice balls that had been wrapped in leaves, before starting to climb.

They climbed steadily on a switchback path through dense forest of cedar. Snow shone in patches in the gloomy shade of the spreading trees.

Mr. Mitoshi swore profusely each time he slipped on a loose stone. More than once, Retsudo had to jump to the side to avoid stones clattering down the path at him.

That self-abusing Korean monkey of a swordsmith, the wizened rice farmer cried out at one point, wiping sweat from his face with a kimono sleeve. Why doesn't he live down in the damned valley, like the rest of us?

Maybe he enjoys the peace and quiet up here, Retsudo suggested.

What peace and quiet, I ask you? How can a person even think with birds making that infernal racket all day!

Retsudo laughed in amazement. For the last hour he had been listening, with sharp thrills of delight, to a cuckoo that seemed to be following them up the steep mountain.

Ah, you horse-slayers! Mr. Mitoshi went on, his mouth twisted with scorn. I'll never understand it! When you're not sticking swords in each other, you're composing poems about cuckoos, cherry blossoms and the full moon!

He turned his head to the side and spat.

It's a good thing us farmers give you enough rice to keep going, because if you ever had to work for a living, you'd all starve like dogs!

Retsudo lowered his head to conceal his smile as, with a jerk of his wiry body, Mr. Mitoshi started again to climb the stony path under dense, dark cedars.

Osai's Razor is an excerpt from Mr. Wilson's novel of the same name, which takes place in 17th century Japan.

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