The samurai Vol. 3
He left on a jet plane, not knowing when he would be back again, but that was just half of the story.
On the third day of my fifth month in Japan, I met a samurai. It was just after lunch on that cold February afternoon. I had gone outside the university gate, not the main gate but the other one that was about 400 meters west of the main gate, to smoke. Smoking wasn't allowed on campus but you could go outside the university, a step or two beyond the gate, and smoke to your heart's content. As was my wont, that meant smoking till my lunch break was over. There was still some residual heat from the miso soup I had at lunch but that heat- radiating from a nebulous core nestled somewhere in my stomach- felt like a hallucination of warmth in the prevailing cold. Even with my brown shearling jacket on, a grey cardigan beneath that, and a black woolen scarf snug around my neck, my muscles still trembled at the behest of the cold. The sun was shining rather brightly. It hadn't snowed that day- in fact it hadn't snowed all winter- but it was very cold. For someone who had spent all his life except for the past few months in the tropics, only a few degrees north of the equator, the idea that the sun could reign in the sky with such impotence was still a difficult one for me to grasp.
The people I usually smoke with weren't at our spot that day. It's not like we were friends, just a bunch of people yoked together by our addiction. The group had 3 regular members, including me, and a 4th straggler. There was the man with a slight paunch, middle aged, and always dressed in dark, ill-fitting suits. I imagined he worked as an administrative staff in the university's liaison office, sitting behind a non-descript desk next to one of the three copiers in the room. He always arrived before I did, already smoking with long, slow drags. The other guy usually got there before me as well. He was an undergrad who had really long, shiny hair and wore black John Lennon glasses. He probably wanted to look cool, but he always seemed sad to me and not sad in a cool, melancholic way, just sad in a dejected manner. We would exchange uneasy glances and silent bows, then retreat into our separate shells, standing on different apices of an unequal triangle. The straggler was a woman that worked in Entomology department. She walked with a slight limp, and her visits were infrequent and erratic. Whenever she was around, she was always done before I had finished my second stick, smoking with furtive, short drags like a sinner lapsed from grace. In a way she reminded me of someone- another lady- I used to know in what felt like a different lifetime. This lady wasn’t much of a smoker but had once tried it in a bid to understand why I smoked. She smoked with the same short drags, never quite able to finish that one stick and unable to understand me.
I arrived at the spot that day immediately after lunch like I had been doing for about 2 months and with my ash tray, an empty instant coffee can, in hand. There was no one there when I arrived. That surprised me but only in the manner that disruption of routine startles the mind, and it was only for a very brief instance before everything continued dully along. I stood at my place in our spot and started with the first of my American Spirits cigarettes. Maybe I'll meet the Shogun's daughter carrying the famed sword or something else out of the ordinary will happen to brighten my day, I thought.
Once upon a time, the Shogun- feudal lord of Japan and all in it- had a daughter who was beautiful. The very nature of her beauty was such that no one, man or woman, could be in her presence without feeling a stirring of emotions. These emotions ranged from awe, desire, and lust to envy, loathing, and even trepidation. Throughout the land, her beauty was without rival. The Shogun also had in his possession a katana, Kazeshini, which he prized above all others. Not only was the sword a thing of beauty for it had been forged by the legendary blacksmith Yamatoki but in the entirety of its graceful, slight curvature, the shogun professed that he had never held a more potent instrument of death. There was no greater demonstration of this than in the Great War. The Shogun had known for some years about the possibility of war, ever since the emissary to the emperor was assassinated on his way from Kyoto, and when the final battle of the war unfolded on the plains of Segikahara, he was ready. With Kazeshini in hand, he had won the battle with a rousing display of such ferocity that the ensuing peace seemed total. Tales of how his sword sang a high pitched, whistling tune as it mowed down one man after another became part of the lore, and Kazeshini became a symbol of his strength.
That, though, was a long time ago, long before his daughter was born, and- as it’s in the nature of man- there were rumbles of war again. The Shogun, no longer in his fighting prime, therefore arranged a marriage between his daughter and the son of the Daimyo of the biggest clan in Hokkaido to stave off the war. She refused. Not that there was anything wrong with the Daimyo’s son but she wanted more out of life than being a pawn in her father’s power play. Armed with nothing more than her inchoate ideals of self and an optimism borne out of naiveté, she stole Kazeshini and made her way to the enchanted forest in Yakushima. In the forest was a lake where the gods were said to frolic all year long and anyone who found the lake had their wish granted. All she wanted was to spend the rest of her days among the water spirits of the lake, at peace with the forest, and away from the insatiable greed around her in the palace. However, with a horde of ninjas after her, her chances of reaching the enchanted forest grew slim with each day and at the end of her ropes, one lonely night in an abandoned temple, she met a yokai. The evil spirit, while sympathetic to her cause, could only offer to transport her to the gate of a 1000 roads, one of which led through a maze of increasing complexity and crisscrossing paths to the enchanted forest. With no other choice, she accepted and has been travelling ever since, searching for that one path to her promise land while her determination- occasionally flickering in the face of various setbacks- burns bright. The end.
The building across the road and opposite where I stood was 3-story high and made of terra-cotta colored bricks. Against the muted white and grey of nearby buildings, the loud color muttered dissent. There was an office on the first floor with a glass wall facing the road while the rest of the building hid her secrets behind bricks. The glass wall was awash with words in Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana; bright words in blue, green, and red with trimmings of white; words that described what went on in that office. Still I had no idea what went on in that office or anywhere else. There was a man and a woman sitting in the office, and I wondered why they didn't go for lunch. Lunchtime might be illusory to many but on weekdays it was firmly located between noon and 1pm, give or take 30 minutes. Did they finish their lunch quickly or were they kung fu masters capable of surviving on a cube of tofu for 2 months? Were they lovers? I noticed my reflection on the glass wall, next to a yellow inflatable creature that was upside down and alone by the wall. There was another inflatable animal at the other end of the wall, a white bunny in blue overalls. The bunny was staring out from behind the wall with two black dots for eyes, a couple of unshed tears, and a mouth stretched taut into a line. There wasn't much to see on the street.
The trees that lined the road were without leaves, and the naked branches, thin and desperate for company, longed to touch the overhead cables. I looked up the road as it rose to a crest and disappeared from sight. A traffic light hung over the crest, and though it was green, no cars passed. The street was quiet, just like I imagined it would be in Lagos at that moment. She would still be in bed, deep in the throes of REM sleep, dreaming of cars, sapphire, and the bird that flew into her future without looking back. I wondered if she had found someone who knew how to fix cars. The last time I saw her, in the flesh and an arm’s length away, was the day before my departure. We were at her apartment, carrying on as usual without any reference to the pink elephant that was standing by the fridge in her cramped kitchen. There really wasn’t anything more to be said. Not now, not after all the months that had passed between when I got the admission for my PhD fellowship and tomorrow. It had all been said, or left unsaid, but the conclusion was always the same. I’ll be gone for longer than November- much, much longer. We had dinner that night and it was an uneventful affair. We filled the space between us with inane chatter, threading over familiar grounds in discussions about politics, movies, and music. Afterwards, while we watched the 9’o clock news, I asked about her mum. She shrugged.
“And is she taking her medications for her high BP?”
“Don’t ask about my mum.”
“I really can’t do this right now. I just can’t.”
Before I could reply, she started crying. That was a surprise. In all the years we’d been together, I’d never seen her cry, and even though I had an idea why she was crying, I really didn’t know why she was crying. Why now? What was there to cry about? This was an old tale, as old as man, and the parts had been written a thousand years ago. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, and then- in a twist of fate- they are separated. Boy has to go far, far away to make a living and the girl is left behind. The denouement of the story is just as plain. Knowing how way leads on to way, they are pulled apart in increasing distance, taking different paths on their separate journey, forever searching for that elusive lake and destined never to meet again. I knew it, she knew it, but it seemed she was the only one that felt it. I wanted to pat her on the back and comfort her somehow but of what use was that? Instead I watched her cry, twiddling my thumbs as her sobs ebbed and sniffles were incorporated into the course of her tears.
“You could just tell me it’s not over.”
“But that would be a lie.”
“And of what use is the truth?”
The reporter on the news continued chattering on about one thing or the other, filling the silence between us with white noise. It was better this way; it was just better.
“I could wait, you know. I won’t mind doing it.”
“And have you live your life in suspended animation?”
“You really don’t have to bear all the burden, but that won’t be you. Always thinking about everyone else but yourself.”
She smiled, a bittersweet smile, and we kissed. It was a perfunctory kiss; my goodbye kiss. After a while, I left her apartment. As I climbed down the stairs, and despite the urge to take one last look, I walked on. I couldn’t afford to turn into a pillar of salt, not at that moment. Moreover, this wasn’t a movie where our heroine, tears streaming down her eyes, stands by the door as her lover strides into the night. Knowing her, she would be back in her apartment with her door locked.
A sudden gust of cold wind blew along the street and, on finding no debris to play with, disappeared just as abruptly. As I stood smoking, I heard someone walking towards me. At first I barely noticed it but there was a pattern to the sound, a rhythmic steadfastness of footfalls that had the click clack timbre of wood hitting concrete and in increasing decibels too. I turned and saw a man walking towards me, an old man in a gray kimono with a frayed, blue woolen scarf around his neck and wearing a wooden geta on his feet. On his waist was the daishou- a pairing of his katana and wakizashi- tucked into the left side of his black sash. The hilt of both swords, jutting out rather sharply from his sash, left little doubt as to who he was. His thinning hair was mostly grey and one of his eyebrows, the left one, had an arch at a higher angle than the other one. This bunched up the wrinkles on that side of his forehead. Coupled with his puffy eyelids, impassive eyes, and thin lips, he had an air of gravitas about him.
I continued smoking as he walked towards me, feigning disinterest behind a cloud of smoke I had just blown out. He stopped a few paces from where I stood and, after giving me a cursory bow, started smoking. He lit his cigarette with a series of motions that bordered on finicky. He removed a pack of cigarette from within the left sleeve of his kimono, removed a stick and lighter from the pack, and started smoking after returning the pack and lighter back into his sleeve. His movements lacked any superfluous bits. The precise nature of each motion, no doubt acquired from much practice, was oddly permeated with grace and solitude.
I dropped the butt of my fourth stick into the coffee can and removed my last cigarette for the afternoon from the pack. We continued smoking in silence, and I wondered if he had ever killed anyone.
One bright summer morning, just outside a tiny wooden house high up Inasayama Mountain, the samurai stood facing a shimmering spirit contained within the vague outlines of a man. The spirit was an accretion of malevolent thoughts that had floated up from the people who lived in the valley and coalesced in the rarefied air on the mountain. Every decade, these thoughts acquired form as a demon with a snarling bark, arms that ended in sharpened claws, and a hunger for human souls. The samurai had to exorcise this demon by defeating it in a fight and prevent a great evil from descending on the valley. This was his duty; his father had done the same thing, just as his grandfather had and all the first-born sons in their lineage. The stage was set. Sunlight gleamed off a bucket of rainwater outside the house, and the samurai stood still before the demon, his left hand holding the scabbard of his katana while his right hand hovered loosely by his side and all the toes of his right foot were buried in the sand in the manner of his family’s Iten-ryu school of swordsmanship. A slight breeze rustled the leaves, and the demon, as though on cue, leapt to attack, but it was too late. The samurai, having pushed himself with his right foot, landed to the side of the demon and slightly crouched on his left foot from the impact of that one flash footstep. With his second movement, he removed his katana from its sheath and stood up straight, slicing the spirit with a clean, silent motion. It was over in an instant, and a violent gust of wind scattered whatever semblance of humanity the demon previously held into pieces. The samurai sheathed his sword.
The last time we spoke was about 3 weeks ago. It was a video call on a Saturday evening, at least it was evening in my corner of the world. In Lagos, the day was just approaching its zenith, and with Saturdays being designated for parties, she was dressed for her friend’s wedding. She was lovely, just like I remembered, or maybe even more. Her gele, a purple and gold damask headdress, sat on her head with the ease of a crown and with more flair. The wattage of her smile, even with the intervening distance between us and the two screens, still had the power to brighten up my heart and a little left for my tiny room. She was ready to leave the house, excited at the numerous possibilities the day held while for me the sun had set and all I had was a fluorescent bulb to keep the darkness at bay. As we talked, I tried to remember the particulars of our love but I couldn’t. What was the texture of her lips, and what did they taste like? What was the weight of her breasts? I knew they were more than a handful, spilling beyond the boundaries of my palm but what did they feel like? In what ways did her face contort when it was distorted by the pleasures of our fucking, and did she let off a scream or a whimper when we were done? All I could remember was a general sense of how good we were together but the details all seemed fuzzy, like a beautiful day glimpsed through a foggy window. In that moment, I felt like she was in my past as we talked. After the call was over, I had an ache- dull and persistent- somewhere on the right side of my chest. At first I thought it might be my usual heartburn but the character of this pain felt different and there was no relief even after I took a swig from my antacid bottle. As I was about to sleep though, I finally realized what it was. It was a longing for all things familiar, a longing for hot eba and spicy okra soup, for heat and humidity, for home, for her, but life goes on and a man has to do what a man has to do.
A clattering of heels intruded on this interlude. A lady, wearing a pair of black suede heels with silver buckles, walked towards were we stood with all the finesse of a supermodel walking down a slope. She had a huge red tartan scarf wrapped around her neck which obscured the lower half of her face and the golden buttons on her black, double breasted pea coat sometimes caught the sunlight as she walked. Her legs were straight and supple, with no blemish evident between the top of the frilly white socks she wore and the hem of her short, pleated skirt. Her calf muscles juddered as each foot hit the ground, one after the other. I tried to divine how her legs could be immune to the cold but came up blank. Maybe she was a divine being- a rather beautiful one- not subject to a little inconvenience such as low temperature. I looked up and the samurai was looking at me. He smiled at me; it was a big grin that lit up his face. I smiled back.
Shola Olubunmi has always wanted to get an MFA in creative writing. He has fantasies of sitting out on a bench on a beautiful campus- somewhere that is not in 9ja, obviously- discussing the finer points of literary devices with his peers. Oh what bliss. Sapa no go just let my guy be great.
Copyright © Shola Olubunmi, 2022. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form on by an electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author/Alolitmag.