Stepping along the path, he emerged from the forest, and when he saw the bridge, he couldn’t help but smile. As he was, as others would soon see him, would they know the beauty that was instantly pressed upon his mind...or would they see a mad man?
He wouldn’t hold it against them, nor would he be surprised at their reactions. As he was, his posture, standing upright and walking, was a contradiction to how he no doubtedly would be presented to others. His shoulders, his chest, his back, his arms, they were all bare. The top half of his kimono that should have covered all these parts of him was pushed down around his waist.
To others, he would be in mid ceremony, but he was alone.
He was armed. The blade was in his right hand. The length was correct, but in truth, this was an abnormality. He carried a katana, though it had clearly been broken in half. The severed end a clean cut.
Still, more evidence to his assumed condition, and due to his state, they might figure he was merely searching out someone who would agree to take his head....completing the ceremony.
Now, however, did he merely wander? A ghost instead of a man. A slow passage from the present world to the afterlife.
All this might have been seen on the outside, but within, it was beauty and contemplation. As soon as he spotted the bridge, his thoughts focused upon an explanation, and he entertained it, thus:
"The Kekehashi, a Camellia cultivated in the province of Higo on the island of Kyushu, is part of a family that glories in the flair of stamens that nearly overshadow their petals, which, despite their splashes of crimson upon solid white, are rather....superfluous."
He stepped upon the wooden bridge which passed over a wide river that separated the one bank from the village on the other side. Already visible were the merchant stands nearest the end of the bridge, and the people who poured from there to cross the river, gave him a wide birth. They first eyed his face, then his bare chest, then the blade in his hand. Some would stop there and hurry past him. Others would look back into his face, having seen a tranquil smile there before all the other signs and then expect to see a different expression when they looked that second time. When his expression hadn’t changed, they might have paused in their tracks, unable to control their sudden musings, but then they remembered the blade, and they would hurry on their way.
Meanwhile, he continued to entertain the explanation presented by the bridge.
"Even less glorified are the leaves of the Kekehashi, a dark shinny green, but whose serrated edges are almost insignificant compared to other species.
Translated as ’suspension bridge’, the Kekehashi is favored by the samurai. Warriors who put honor in high esteem, they speak of the Kekehashi as expressing ume-jin, which is an expression of praise.
Since the flower blooms during the winter, a season for hardy souls, the name’s translation is like that of a parable.
When in life one comes along a break in their path, possible perils separating one from their destination, a hardy soul who overcomes is like a bridge, passing from one spot to the next, leaving the conquered perils underfoot."
At this time of day, those crossing the bridge were leaving the village. They were like so many flowers blooming in the warm season, but he was the rare one that bloomed in the winter. During a lull in the traffic, a lone traveler happened to match his gate for but a moment, but then her slightly faster steps took her ahead of him. As she passed into his peripheral, the flowers on her yukata were absorbed into his thoughts. The umbrella she laid over her shoulder, too, was decorated with the petals of a particular flower.
He smiled and continued the explanation:
"Kekehashi are even favored upon the graves of fallen samurai. The bush doesn’t harbor the habit of clinging to its dead flowers, as do other Camellia species. While life is full of purpose and trials, death was the necessary release in the end."
Here, he stopped in his stride, being about halfway across the bridge, and he turned to the right side. He strolled over and placed his free hand upon the wooden surface of the railing. Ahead, the woman with the umbrella stopped, turned about to look back at him, and watched him with narrow eyes.
As if oblivious to her gaze, he entertained his explanation more:
"A bridge is by no means a quick glide over the trials placed upon a path. A bridge has to be built, and it has to be strong. It has to last over time, so one could at any moment pull from the wisdom gained from that passage. To obtain wisdom is to experience. To experience is to walk across that transition. No matter what, there is a time that has to pass during a transition, and sometimes, it might seem like one is merely clinging to something, especially if they stop along the bridge and gaze down at the babbling river below. One often marvels at the flow, even considering the metaphorical themes that the flow happens to shape into lessons of life."
By this time, the woman with the umbrella had glanced at the village from her spot on the bridge. Then, she glanced over at the opposite bank. There were few people on the bridge at present. She focused on him, expelled a silent sigh, and started toward him.
He, however, had yet to finish entertaining his explanation:
"What is it that’s said about those who stop and gaze into the perils? Deep thinkers? Admirers? Ones who linger? Why do they linger? Why consider the perils instead of finishing the transition from one bank to the next? If asked, would their answer be something along the lines of another question?
’Why the perils? What had caused them?’
I admire the Kekehashi because of how it stirs my thoughts. Most of the time, people do not see the inner perils others are facing, not even sensing them. The Kekehashi, like all flowers, draw attention to themselves. And as much as I would like to resemble the art of a Kekehashi, I have not achieved such aesthetic perfection just yet. Where the Kekehashi glories in ume-jin, my petals show, and where the blades of the leaves have been sheathed, my blade is restless."
The woman stood a slight distance at his left side. She held her umbrella at such an angle that the edge hid her eyes from him if he were to look at her. Perhaps she was watching his hands. Perhaps the position of his feet, any hint of motion from his legs.
None of these were correct. She was gazing down at the river just as he was.
Meanwhile, the explanation he entertained offered him one more question:
"Is a Kekehashi the finished passage from one bank to another, or is it the moment of transition? To become like the Kekehashi, I must learn the correct answer. Many, or maybe just some people like to think they have achieved a definition for themselves:
To avoid confrontations.
But....confrontation....is what I want."
And so, he opened himself up to allow another opinion to voice itself upon the explanation he entertained.
He watched the woman’s lips move in his peripheral as she spoke.
"I can see that while you gaze tranquil upon the river," she said, "within, you are just as its currents....aggressive."
His expression didn’t change, but within, his smile widened. While there was commotion from the merchant stands on the village bank, the river rivaled that energy with its own.
"Are you a deep thinker as well?" he asked the woman.
"I do not have to be." she answered. “You are obvious.”
“And so are you.” he offered.
Yet to lift the edge of her umbrella, she responded, “Am I?”
“You have been following me even before I reached this bridge.” he said.
“Are you clinging to a daydream, samurai?” she scoffed and angled her face in his direction, though she kept her gaze upon the river.
He marveled at the smoothness of her chin, her lips.
“Yet, should I commend you?” she asked. “Or were you expecting this?”
“A daydream.” he said, and let his widened inner smile show on his face, “Huh. Maybe I’ve been trying to step out of a daydream, but even in a daydream, I know when I’m being watched.” He mimicked her angled focus, sharing the view of the river below with more of an acknowledgment of herself. “And by how many eyes.”
The woman lifted the edge of her umbrella, exposing her eyes as they took in the profile of his face.
“Tell me,” he continued, but had yet to meet her gaze, “does that foretell I am near the end of my daydream?”
She studied his expression. The strange tranquility she found there before hadn’t left, despite the sharpness intended in her own. “No matter your state, you have neared an end. I suggest you choose another path. There is no type of reward for you ahead.”
“Ah.” he said, lifting his chin a bit, and the woman thought he might have met her gaze then, but the tranquility on his face was not through with him. “Reward. I could only hope any path I walk leads me to a reward, but to be able to tell the difference between reward and loss....”
Now he centered his gaze upon the river again, but he lifted his head as though he had reached some sort of discovery...or was searching elsewhere for one.
“...are you one who can discern such things?” he finished.
Undaunted, the woman answered, “I can discern enough, and so I ask you again to choose another path.”
“A discerning spirit.” he responded. “You must have wisdom, and to speak with such authority, I am to assume you indeed have such, though it has been bridled by a worldly label. Obligation comes with that, does it not? Yet, how can I explain that it was the moment eyes were upon me that my path was set? Fortunate are those who set their own paths, but for many, they have to take those first few steps for a path to present itself.”
“I won’t assume to understand your reasoning for walking this path," the woman said, “but I see you are a man to whom reason is held in high esteem. Therefore, I offer my advice: this path leads to confrontation.”
The smile she then watched spread across his face didn’t break that ever-present tranquility. In fact, it might have deepened it. Though, instead of a sedation she might have expected from such a plunge, she saw something brighten in his eyes.
“But that’s what I want.” he said.
The woman pulled the umbrella from her shoulder and pointed its tip toward the bridge. She turned to face him fully.
“The eyes upon you move at my word.” she said. “If you consider my advice, they will keep their distance.”
“I am afraid I cannot,” he said, “because unlike most, I chose this path. I have a goal.”
“Regardless,” she shot back, her body rigid, her chin tilted upward, “so have we, and that is to keep the peace.”
The babbling river offered no new sounds, but the figures that bloomed around him proved to be of the hardy sort as well. Some among those that left the village stopped and targeted him. Others that had neared the opposite river bank stopped in their false strides to turn back his way.
“Ah” he said, “peace. You seek to keep it. I seek to grasp it. Come, let us help each other then.”
The woman no longer stood alone with him. While those who resembled the summer blooms followed the flow out of the village, they were forced to cut around the hardy winter blooms that stood along the side.
“There will be help, yes,” the woman said, “but not the kind you seek. Although, the help we give benefits all...including yourself.”
He continued to put his back to the four men surrounding him, but as he spoke to the woman, his words were for them as well, “So you say, but what if I were to declare you to be a resource?”
“I say people have a way of defining truths according to their whims.” the woman answered.
“And to that,” he said, “I say you are already proving a truth I had set out to establish. Although, it is a pretty obvious truth. Yet, it is merely the first step in obtaining a deeper truth.”
“Last warning.” the woman said. “Leave this path or we will have to force you.”
The flow of villagers had ceased, leaving the hardy souls by themselves. He found this fitting. Life had ways of showing humor in the most dire of situations, but maybe it was that humor that told of a deeper truth. Since he was in search of that deeper truth, it might have been why he was aware of the humor.
He believed in the existence of a veil that had been dropped over the eyes of most, and so like the times a rock blocks the flow of a river, so too do those accustomed to the shade of that veil notice when a breeze lifts it from their eyes. At those times, the only thing to see is what has always been there, now singled out as though new.
He turned from the river to look at the woman now. The four men around him slipped their fingers around the handles of the weapons at their sides or at their backs. Their faces were shadowed under the straw hats they wore, but their eyes were bright with focus.
The tranquility was still settled upon the his face as he spoke, “I must indulge you with what I have discovered so far.”
She didn’t have to take in what she already knew of his appearance. Her eyes never left his.
“You’ve seen that of which my first steps have revealed,” he said, “however, appearance is such an easy thing to take in. Yet, do you always think you have discerned the spirit of purpose of those whom you’ve come across?”
Her threatening chin lowered slightly, “Are you ronin?”
“I would have to say that I am.” he said. “Though whether by choice or it being forced upon me, that remains the heart of my path.”
“Your sword....” said the man to the left of the woman, “....has it actually been....?”
He shifted his eyes to that man, “Severed? That is correct.”
“Then how come you still carry it?” that same man asked. “Such a weapon is useless. It has lost its meaning!”
“On the contrary,” he said, “the one whom I served under was the one who gave it meaning.”
That same man wrinkled his nose, “What?”
“Shall I tell you the tale?” he asked.
“We will waste no more time here.” the woman said. “Be gone, or we will force you to leave.”
“Your job is to keep the peace.” he said, “I will go ahead and tell you that the next few steps of my path is to provoke the use of your own blades...”
The shadows on the faces of the four men darkened. Their grips on their weapons tightened.
“Yet,” he continued, “as human beings, do not we all wish to see violence less? To postpone the inevitable, would you not wish to have but a few more moments of this present inaction while I might explain myself? After all, before being defined by your labels, you are humans as I, and every human has reasons for doing things. Care not for keeping true peace by understanding the existence of this peril, or do you wish to see my true deeper intent come into focus?”
“He has a silver tongue!” that same man scoffed. “But silver is for bargaining, and behind a bargaining man is self preservation before the care of others.”
There was never an understood moment when that man’s blade had been unsheathed, yet it was thrust forward. The babbling river below drowned out the sounds of his feet, and with surety of intent, he never deviated from his forward thrust.
His target, the one with the silver tongue, glided along a path set by his tranquility, taking him slightly away from the bridge’s railing. The blade coming at him zipped by. He then swept the top of his left wrist into the bottom of the other man’s wrist. The thrusting blade fell. The free hand that dislodged the blade now curled into a fist that struck with lightening quickness and yet, a gentle carelessness, into the thrusting man’s face.
The man was tossed back to his position at the woman’s side, stumbling further backward.
The shadow-faced man at the silver-tongued man’s back yanked the blade from its scabbard at his right hip. In the same motion he was stepping forward, he came directly into the silver-tongued man’s right heel.
None of them saw him bring his leg up, pivot the desired angle, and deliver it into the other man’s chest, though there was enough force to send the aggressor back the way he came, crashing onto the bridge.
Tranquility reclaimed the silver-tongued man just as the remaining two men lurched forward, weapons drawn, but the woman’s action was much faster. She had extended the opened umbrella across their path, and once they had halted their advance, she slowly lowered it.
She and the silver-tongued man stared at one another. “You do not use your sword?” she asked.
“I use it even now.” he answered.
The man who was struck in the face stood slightly hunched at the woman’s side, holding his bloodied nose. “You have lost yourself!” he snapped. “You are dressed for death but deny the stroke!”
“An interesting observation.” the silver-tongued man said. ”Though, I wish to stave off death as long as I am able. Yet, one does not always know when it is their time.”
“But why provoke death and then deny it?” the woman asked. “Is not your belly exposed as invitation?”
“Are you too cowardly after all?” the bloodied-man scoffed.
“He cannot.” said the other at his side. “To commit seppuku with such a blade would be a disgrace. Even if its size is convenient.”
“You speak part truth.” the silver-tongued man said, glancing at that man. Then, he returned to the woman, “My belly is brandished, but this is not of my doing.”
The woman considered him, her eyes tightening to a thought, “Was it....your former master then?”
“You do have a discerning spirit.” the silver-tongued man said. “Should I indeed tell you the tale of my appearance? Maybe, with your spirit, you can help me discover whether this was my own doing, or completely the work of my former master.”
The men, having gathered themselves, looked to the woman, though their weapons were still drawn.
“What is your name?” she asked.
The silver-tongued man answered, “Jirou.”
The two men who were not wounded regarded one another.
“Just Jirou?” the bloodied-man asked.
“That is correct.” Jirou answered.
“Second son?” the bloodied-man asked. “Were you not esteemed higher than your older brother?”
“I do not use those characters to write my name.” Jirou said.
“What characters do you use?” the woman asked.
“The one for ‘mercy’,” Jirou answered, “and the one for ‘wolf’.”
The men shared more looks among each other.
“A contradiction?” Jirou asked. “Or maybe a portent to today’s perils. I shall tell you what my former master said. Then, maybe you’ll be ready for my next steps.”