The Three Stages of Atsushi
Sagami Province, Japan – Muromachi period, 1531 CE
Dressed in a faded and tattered mourning kimono, Michiko appeared wrapped as if in a darkened shroud as she knelt before the hokora shrine. For a moment Atsushi hesitated as he walked toward her, a chill running up his back. Is this my wife? he thought in wonder. Or some fallen kami?
A warm breeze carried the faint odor of incense as well as Michiko’s whispered words to Atsushi as he shook himself free of the unease he felt. “Great Amaterasu, Ruler of the Plain of Heaven, hear my plea,” Michiko murmured, her eyes closed, her head bowed, her hands clasped in her lap. The flames of candles placed on the small wooden shrine’s stone base wavered in that errant wind. Once again Atsushi had awakened to find Michiko had stolen away in the dawn’s light to make her futile entreaties to the sun goddess.
It was a beautiful, clear morning with the sunrise casting a dazzling light over his and Michiko’s small farm and its surrounding acreage. The flower gardens Michiko tended were full of warm, bright colors and fragrances. The surface of the Sakawa river glittered on the flat horizon like dancing jewels. Such calmness belied the raging waters of last spring season which had overflowed the Sakawa’s banks to wreak great destruction on all around it.
Atsushi’s rice crop was just beginning to come back a year after the flood; the remaining fruit trees showed their first signs of blossoming. With the help of his neighbors and their bakafu landowner, he had rebuilt his small wooden house. And, he had hoped, rebuilt both his and Michiko’s lives as well. But it was not to be, it seemed. He stopped a few feet from Michiko who seemed oblivious to his presence, lost in her endless grief and despair.
“Michiko,” he said, his fists clenched at his side as he fought the storm of emotions warring within him. “Please come away from there.”
“Amaterasu, I beg you, let my son be saved,” Michiko continued as if not hearing him. “Let me bring him back from Death’s dominion. I will offer you anything of myself in return.”
“Michiko.” Atsushi’s patience had grown thin since the death of their son. That terrible loss had been hard but he had moved on with life as empty and troubled as it seemed at times. Michiko had not. He reached down, grasped his wife gently under her thin arms and pulled her to her feet.
Michiko’s graying hair was done up in a topknot; the white face-paint she had applied to her once-beautiful features for what had become her morning ritual was streaked with tears. She blinked rapidly as if waking from a deep sleep. She had lost weight from not eating much and, as such, was as light as a feather.
“Atsushi?” she said, looking at him as if seeing him for the first time.
Michiko shook her head, her gaunt features etched with anguish. “I could have saved him,” she said, her voice breaking. “Osamu would be here today if I had acted more swiftly.”
“And you would be dead too,” Atsushi interrupted softly, pulling her to him in a tight embrace. How many times must he reassure her before she would believe him? “The flood waters would have borne you away with him, never to return. Osamu is dead. You must stop this.”
As Michiko began to sob against his shoulder, as her frail body shook uncontrollably, Atsushi struggled against his own tears. Amaterasu! Always Amaterasu, the false goddess, and this terrible guilt Michiko felt! Michiko had lost a son, it was true, but he not only had lost Osamu but was now was losing his wife! Slowly and as surely as the sun shone in the sky, Michiko was slipping away from him.
Such cruelty in the world, he thought angrily, not for the first time. Do the gods or the kami even care? As he led Michiko into the house, it was then he remembered…
“It is flying, father! Flying!”
Atsushi laughed in delight at the sight of his son. Osamu ran across the small field behind their house, towing a high-flying kite in his excited wake. The “paper hawk” was one Atsushi had purchased on his last trip to Odawara, spending a great deal of his hard-earned money to buy it.
Despite Michiko’s admonitions about such an exorbitant sum, it had been worth the price to see the joy on Osamu’s face. It was his son’s seventh birthday today, after all, and what better way to celebrate as well as honor the gods to ensure a good harvest for the coming year?
The kite was shaped like a bird of fire, as long and wide as Osamu was tall. It darted through the cloudless, blue sky as if alive, swooping and soaring, twisting and climbing. As the wind finally died and the kite fell spiraling to earth, Atsushi joined his son.
“Honorable Father,” Osamu said as he reeled in the kite’s string tether. “If it pleases you to listen, I have an idea.”
“Ah,” Atsushi said, feigning great seriousness. Osamu sometimes acted more like an adult than a child. “What would that be?”
Osamu stood over his kite, his small brows furrowed in thought, his brown eyes narrowed. His dark hair had been mussed by the wind. His short pants were grass-stained from where he had fallen running after his kite.
“I have heard stories of Chinese soldiers borne aloft by giant kites,” his son finally said. “Perhaps Hojo Ujitsuna could do the same with his samurai. They could surprise their enemies from above.”
War and battle again. His son rarely talked of anything else these days. Yet, since Soun Ujitsuna of the Hojo Clan ruled nearby Odawara and protected the surrounding countryside, it seemed a harmless enough preoccupation. Michiko was wrong to worry so about it. Like all things childish, Osamu would soon grow out of it. Atsushi himself once had such aspirations–to attain a respectable position in life, to become someone of modest wealth and benevolent power. But that was long ago, another lifetime. He knelt down beside Osamu. “Interesting. But they would have to be very big and strong kites.”
Osamu nodded. “But it could be done, yes?”
“Perhaps. But, as everything else in life, such an undertaking would have to be done in well-planned stages. The kites must be designed, then built and tested, then the soldiers trained in their use, and, finally, a great strategy devised for the attack. It would not be accomplished in one quick step.”
Osamu considered that for a moment and said, “Then I will think on that more carefully for I am sure it can be done. And then, with your permission, Honorable Father, I will notify Hojo Ujitsuna. And perhaps he will take it to the Shogun and to the Emperor of the Jade Court himself!”
Atsushi suppressed a smile. His son could be so serious and imaginative! Surely, those were traits he had inherited from Michiko. “Very well,” he said, employing his most important tone of voice. “I am certain you will come up with a solution. Now, come, your mother has prepared a delicious supper for us.”
Such a precious memory, Atsushi thought as he walked the rice paddies that afternoon. But that is all Osamu is now–a shadow from the past.
At that moment, a group of samurai rode over the crest of the hill. It was not unusual to see the armed warriors. In these never-ending days of constant fighting among the feudal daimyo, such soldiers often passed on the road near his farm traveling to or from Odawara–they had done so periodically for the last two years. Aatsushi’s bakafu landowner had an agreement with the samurai and certain warlords, which thankfully kept the war at a distance
As a result, Atsushi had become friendly with one or two of the samurai. As had his son, Osamu, before the flood. Osamu had been greatly interested in the samurai and all manners of weaponry, much to Michiko’s dismay.
But, as these four rode closer, two mounted on horseback in front and two in back of an attendant-borne palanquin, Atsushi realized he did not recognize them. Plus, they were fronted by a trio of brightly costumed musicians, beating drums and ringing bells.
Eerily, the sun clouded over at that very moment as if setting a stage for some dramatic Noh play. Atsushi realized also that the birds had stopped singing; the sounds of insects were no longer apparent. It was as if the whole world was suddenly holding its breath.
Alarmed at such a foreboding coincidence, he quickly looked toward the flower gardens where Michiko was kneeling among the maiden lilies–she seemed intent on what she was doing and had not looked up. Thankfully, the gardens still held her interest after Osamu had died. Even her talent for creating origami birds and animals had faded since the flood. At least gardening kept her somewhat occupied. But before Atsushi could tell Michiko to go inside the house, one of the samurai hailed him.
As the warrior directed his mount closer, Atsushi wiped his hands on his trousers, removed his hat and bowed. “Good day, honored Lord,” he said. “How may a humble farmer assist you?”
The samurai stopped a few feet from Atsushi, looking down on him. The soldier was in full armor and struck an impressive and frightening pose. The stylized metal mask he wore, though hiding the warrior’s features, chilled Atsushi to his core with its stark otherworldliness. A kitana and wakizashi hung in belted scabbards at his side, the long and short swords of the warrior class intimidating even when sheathed.
The samurai’s armor, unlike the other soldiers Atsushi had encountered, looked new and untouched by battle. And there were faint colors swirling in its surface as if the reflections of a rainbow flickered there. His answer to Atsushi’s question was surprising and unexpected. “My master wishes to speak to your wife.”
Atsushi blinked. “My wife?” He again looked toward Michiko who was now standing and staring at the palanquin. She held some weeds she had pulled in one hand; the simple shirt and trousers she wore were smeared with dirt. Her hair, though pulled up in back, had loosened enough to allow some long, stray strands to hang limply.
The passenger in the conveyance had risen from his seat, also standing and returning his wife’s gaze. He was tall, thin and very pale, garbed in a long, belted, dark robe, his long white hair tied behind his back. His fingernails were painted black.
“Honored Lord,” Atsushi began but when he turned back to the samurai, the armored warrior had wheeled his horse around and was returning to his position behind the palanquin.
“Michiko…” But Atsushi found himself rooted to the spot, suddenly unable to move. His legs felt heavy, his feet like giant stones. His voice faltered as he watched Michiko walk toward the black-robed man.
There the two spoke in hushed tones, the man nodding and smiling, Michiko with head bowed and shoulders hunched. He held something out to Michiko who took it and clasped it to her breast. With a pale hand, the man drew some sign in the air between the two of them, bowed, and got back into his palanquin.
As if obeying some unspoken command, the four servants picked the palanquin up and, with the samurai and musicians, continued on down the road.
Atsushi could suddenly move again. “Michiko!” he cried, stumbling toward the road. “What did that man want? What is it he gave you?”
His wife looked at him then, her features aglow, a smile widening on her face. Atsushi stopped, startled. He hadn’t seen Michiko smile in a very long time. By that simple act, she had become beautiful once more. His heart leapt at the sight.
In her hands, she held a small scroll. “He is a majo, a servant of Amaterasu, and has instructed me how to save Osamu.” And with that announcement, Michiko strode back to the house, her head held high and the smile remaining.
No, no! Atsushi started running. He would catch up with this majo, this witch, and make him pay for deceiving his wife! How dare he take advantage and give her such false hope! Samurai or not, he would punish them for their disrespect.
But they were gone. Atsushi stopped, his mouth agape. The road ran straight and true for miles beyond his farmhouse toward Odawara. The group of Samurai and the palanquin they escorted would not have gotten far; he should have seen them clearly. And yet, there was nothing. The road lay empty of life.
At that moment the sun came out from behind whatever cloud had hidden it. And in the distance, a catbird trilled.
Atsushi remembered the flood as if it were yesterday. He had been so determined to stay! He thought they would be safe. Why had he been so stupidly proud and stubborn? Look what it had cost him.
He sat at the wooden table in their house, a bowl of boiled cabbage and noodles sitting untouched in front of him, a bottle of shochu standing half empty. From his and Michiko’s sleeping room, he could hear his wife reciting verses. She had drawn the curtain and had been reading from the majo’s scroll into the early evening. He could make no sense of those parts he heard.
He sat slumped in his chair, staring into space, his head bobbing with the numbing effects of the shochu. He didn’t have the strength to confront his wife anymore, almost as if the majo had placed a spell over him as well. I have failed, he thought. I have failed to help my family. My son is dead and my wife is mad. What have I done to deserve this? What god or kami have I offended?
“It was my fault,” he mumbled drunkenly. “Not Michiko’s. Osamu-san, Michiko-san, forgive me, my son, my wife. Forgive me.” He put his head down on the table and began to weep. And, slowly, his eyes began to close as he drifted into a troubled sleep…
…and woke to the sound of singing.
What? Atsushi raised his head, trying to shake the sleep from his clouded mind. His mouth was dry, his head was pounding, his stomach roiled sourly from the shochu.
The voice intoned again, clearly, distinctly. He knew that sound though he hadn’t heard its loveliness in such a very long time. Michiko was outside, singing.
He stumbled into the cool air of early morning. He had slept all night! Squinting into the bright sunlight he saw his wife. Once again Michiko attended their household hokora shrine, giving clear, lilting intonation to a song Atsushi didn’t recognize. She stood with her arms crossed at her breast, dressed in the same clothes she had worn in the garden yesterday, her feet bare, her hair hanging loosely about her shoulders.
“Michiko!” he cried. “What are you doing?”
Suddenly, Michiko began to glow. Atsushi stopped and looked away. A trick of the light! He was still half-asleep, still suffering from having drunk too much shochu. By all that was sacred, surely he was dreaming!
He looked back and fell to his knees, heart hammering in his chest. A shimmering blue radiance surrounded his wife, making her appear like some kami from the Invisible World. Her hair writhed serpent-like around and above her head as if alive. Her clothes clung to her as if blown by a great wind. Michiko held her hands out to him. “Atsushi-san,” she said, smiling. “Beloved husband. Do not fear for me. I am going back to save Osamu. And you must remember what has happened here. Look for my paper dragon! With the majo’s help I have placed it where you will only find it when the time is right. Do you hear? We will all be together again, I know it!”
Her paper dragon? What was she saying to him? “Michiko! Michiko!”
Like an earthbound star, the light erupted into an explosion of blue lambency. Michiko vanished within that azure cocoon, shafts of fiery radiance spreading outward like grasping tendrils. Atsushi cried out and covered his eyes.
Atsushi rose slowly to his feet from where he knelt at Michiko’s grave. Once again he had placed some maiden lilies at the burial site. They had been her favorite flowers and fitting for one so brave and selfless and he had tried his best to keep them growing. It was one way of remembering her, of honoring her. Michiko had given her life to save Osamu from last year’s flood. Atsushi was nothing compared to her, she of the courageous heart. She had always hated war and killing and yet, in the end, displayed more courage and selflessness than an entire army of samurai!
Osamu. Blinking back tears, Atsushi made his way toward his house. He must see to on his son.
Ever since Michiko had died in the fierce waters of the swollen Sakawa the year before, Osamu had never been the same. Only seven years old, he had been the light of Atsushi’s and Michiko’s lives. Full of energy and humor, mature and wise beyond his years, now the boy ate and spoke little and slept most days, crying for his mother.
As Atsushi stepped into his house, a momentary reverie came over him. He leaned against the entryway, feeling suddenly drowsy and weak. For a moment, a vision appeared to him–Michiko surrounded in blue light, a smile upon her face.
He shook his head, the sobbing of Osamu breaking the strange trance. What magic was this? Was he losing his mind? Did he even care anymore? With a shrug, he stepped into his son’s small sleeping room. There, Osamu lay, crying and mumbling in his sleep. Atsushi knelt down on the straw tatami mat and placed his hand on his son’s forehead.
Hot, so hot. Fevered, delirious. The flood still ravaged their lives so long after it had come and gone! What can I do? Atsushi thought, hanging his head. Pray? There is no one or nothing to pray to! The gods have deserted us if they ever existed at all!
It was then he saw the paper dragon. It lay on the floor near the foot of the mat. Atsushi stared. It looked like the cranes and other birds and animals Michiko used to make. He hadn’t seen that before. How had it gotten here? Slowly he reached down and picked the origami creature up and through some urging not his own, as if another’s hand guided him, he carefully unfolded it.
There was writing within. Atsushi stared at the small chop mark printed on one side of the paper. It wasn’t familiar to him. But the script that flowed beneath it, so crisp and elegant, was Michiko’s.
With shaking hands, Atsushi started to read. “Dearest Atsushi-san,” the missive began. “I hope you and Osamu are well. If you are reading this, then that is because I no longer exist in the realm of the living. But I also do not abide in the afterlife but somewhere between, awaiting the next stage of our journey.”
He paused, holding his breath. Reluctantly, as if beckoned, he looked again at the letter. It was written in Michiko’s hand. Once more, he read.
“Have you remembered yet what happened? The majo explained it all to me. Those higher goals we seek must be reached in stages; nothing can happen overnight or with one simple act. Even the building of a house occurs in many steps. You, yourself, have always believed thusly. I have heard you recite this to Osamu many times and so do the gods themselves work their wonders–one step at a time.
“So I have gone to complete the second stage of this journey, Osamu’s death being the first, and you must now complete the third and final one. It is the only way that you and I and Osamu can be a family again. We could not do this together but only separately, as painful as that is. That is why neither the majo nor I told you before. It was not yet your turn.
“Heed what I say, my love. Osamu was not to be taken by the flood; he has to grow up to fulfill a great destiny and you and I must be there to aid him in achieving that. He will help to end this terrible conflict among the daimyos and restore peace to our land. You must remember, Atsushi. For all of our sakes, remember.”
Rage exploded within Atsushi. He ran outside, screaming at the sky above, giving voice to all the pain and frustration that had built up inside of him. “Michiko! Michiko!” he cried, shaking his fists at a passing cloud. “What does it mean? What are you trying to tell me?”
Madness! Madness! And yet… Atsushi sat down on the soft grass, suddenly weak and dizzy. It was happening again–in his mind’s eye, he saw his wife enveloped in a blazing blue light, going back in time to rescue Osamu from the flood, to sacrifice herself to save their son.
Could it be? Memories rushed back, cascading through his thoughts like the rampaging waters of the Sakawa. He lowered his head into his hands, gasping at the intensity of the images filling his mind.
Yes, yes. He did remember! By all that was sacred, what Michiko’s spectral message told of was true!
The third and final stage–Atsushi must now do the same to save all three of them as Michiko had done to save Osamu. Could he really do it? Could he? “Amaterasu,” he whispered, reaching out despite his disbelief. “Help me.”
A sudden grayness enveloped the landscape as the sun vanished behind a gathering of thunderheads. Atsushi stood in a sudden quiet, hearing only a beating of drums and a ringing of bells. He quickly walked to the road where, just at the crest of the hill, a procession of samurai, musicians, and a palanquin being borne by four attendants appeared, the palanquin’s occupant a white-maned man garbed in a black robe.
Just like the first time.
I know this, he thought, breathing quickly. I have seen this before. And now I must do what needs to be done. Joyous laughter bubbling in his throat, his spirit soaring, Atsushi ran to meet the majo.
The heavens above Sagami province shone a brilliant blue. Small, fluffy clouds scudded here and there, adding their feathery shapes to a glorious morning sky. Birds flitted from tree to ground and back again; insects buzzed and; the sun warmed the very air itself, sending shafts of golden light everywhere.
Atsushi and Michiko stood in the doorway of their house, watching Osamu at play. “The wooden sword you made for him is being put to good use, it seems,” Michiko said with a playful smile. “He is pushing back the enemy attack.”
Atsushi laughed, admiring his wife’s beauty and pleased at her witty remark. He thanked the gods and the kami every day for her! “Perhaps he will become a samurai,” he said.
Michiko’s face darkened. “I pray not but who knows what the gods have in store for us? The terrible wars continue and remember the flood of last year. If not for you, we would have all perished.”
“How can I forget? But we have survived both, have we not?” Atsushi glanced away then. Something tickled at the back of his mind, some memory trying to surface, some image of the past that lurked there and then, just as abruptly, was gone.
He said softly and slowly, the reason for the words a mystery, “It may be that Osamu will grow up to help bring peace to all of us.” He turned to see Michiko staring at him strangely.
“Perhaps,” she said with a nod, a faraway look in her eyes. “Perhaps. That would be a good thing, yes?”
Atsushi nodded as he and Michiko clasped hands and turned back to look with pride upon their son.