I’d woken early that morning. It was unusual for me, because my tired bones would often cry out for every last moment the warm embrace sleep could offer. But this was not a usual day. You could tell from the first intake of that cold mountain air. The dense fog that drifted off Mount Okuhotaka carried with it a warning that, had I been listening, I might have heard whispered like a thousand eight month old babies practicing their first word.
I quickly threw on my tunic to hold back the onslaught of chill. Off the eastern peak, the sun still gave no hint of it’s grand entrance. Waiting for the right moment. Like a jungle cat waiting to strike. Or a driver waiting to change lanes.
I creeped down the old wooden staircase toward the dojo. Each step creaking lightly, the petrified planks only hinting at their thousand year old stories. Arriving in the room, I lit each candle one by one, bringing life to the dark and dreary space. The space that for the better part of twelve years had been the only home I’d known. The candles would need to be extinguished in a few short hours, but for now this would be the last light I saw before my world was to change forever.
As the last candle caught, I noticed one of the polished brass censers swaying steadily from side to side, a soft wisp of smoke trickling out. The air was still, yet it swung like a pendulum set in motion by a ghost or perhaps a person with invisibility powers. Or even perhaps an invisible man who had died and then become an even more invisible ghost.
I clocked the swing, but thought little of it. The grogginess of early morning had dulled my senses. After today, that would never happen again.
Pulling open the shoji panels, I made my way past the faded tapestries that lined the walls of the covered skybridge connecting the dojo to the ofuro house. The tapestries told the elaborate history of Gifu province. History, that even the common fishing folk could never dream of. And even if they could, they wouldn’t want to. Because these would be scary dreams, with big monsters that have many terrible claws. Fish don’t have claws, so that would be scary to the fishermen.
I stirred the embers in the great irori furnace we used to heat the water for the ofuro and for cooking. Thankfully, they had remained burning through the night. If they had gone out, it would mean breaking through the sheet of ice to pull water for the morning meal which was a real pain. Instead, I could proceed with the other morning chores before waking the Old Master. Though, in truth I never had to wake him. No matter the hour, the man would be alert. Perhaps he didn’t sleep? Perhaps claws scared him too?
I continued past the baths and into the sitting room where my master had first welcomed me into his community. With the eyes of a child I had witnessed him rip a still beating heart from another man, show it to me, then put it back. That man was Old Master’s gardener, Hiraku, who would become my closest friend. In the many years since, I had seen this performed for new arrivals, but it never registered like the first. Perhaps, because I knew Hiraku’s feigned surprise was all in good fun.
The room had not changed at all since that day. The same faded pearl white pillows with red etching adorned the floor. The same bamboo mat, though perhaps with a few more scuffs and tears. The same table I used to bump my knees against as I read while walking.
But there was one thing different on this morning. Something that, had I been a bit more suspicious, could have alerted me to the shock that would soon greet me like a police car light when you know you are driving a little fast but didn’t think it was a big deal.
The sudare were open today. The bamboo shades in this part of the complex were always closed. It had been a rule since the beginning because the compost heap lie just beyond and without the protection of the shades, the large flies would make their way into the sitting room and it would be annoying. So why was today different? Had the Old Master decided to break with tradition for some secret purpose? Was he planning to move the compost heap to a new location? If so, why wouldn’t he tell me? He knew that I was the most skilled with a shovel.
I made note to ask him about it.
In the kitchen I stopped to catch my reflection in the large wash basin, the one mirrored surface we had. I briefly considered sneaking a few budo berries from the cupboard, but thought better of it. The Old Master would occasionally count the berries during meditation, and berry thievery was harshly punished. No, I would wait until berry time, which always followed morning tea.
Finally, I arrived at the large twelve story ladder that led to Old Master’s eight meter square room. The first time I’d climbed this ladder had been a test. My own test. I’d done it carrying four books on my head and a platter of ginger tea and shortbread cakes. A six-year old boy trying to impress his Old Master. I was told not to show off. It was a good lesson.
Now as I made my way up this old ladder, I couldn’t help but think of the many times I’d played with some of the other children on this spot. Games like ladder tag and ladder hop scotch seemed like such a long time ago now, but there was a twinge of regret at their absence. Perhaps, if all the other children hadn’t died so suddenly in that grease fire, I’d still be playing those games today. Or perhaps I’d have grown too old for such things. Growing up is sacrifice. But I still didn’t know the meaning of that word. Not yet.
About halfway up, I paused to look out over the mountain tops. Just in the distance, Lake Taisho shown like a mirror. Each of the slowly fading stars cascading off it’s glass surface. I remembered the first time I’d gone to swim in that lake. Old Master had sent us down to fish manually. For hours, the other boys and I had chased fish through the water trying to grab hold of them with our outstretched fingers. Finally, one of the older boys, Kazuo, took pity on us and explained that we must use our teeth.
As I approaching the top of the ladder, I paused. Something was off.
Old Master always kept a lamp burning on the ledge. In this way he could attract moths for his ongoing entomology hobby. Over the past year alone he had filled over a dozen shadow boxes with moths of varying size, each pinned to a soft felt surface. He would then send them to local enthusiasts and receive back a wide variety of grasshoppers and praying mantises mounted in similar fashion. But this morning the oil wick lie dormant. The serpent’s coil of smoke indicated its recent extinguishing. I hurried up the last few rungs and burst through the threshold.
What awaited me was Old Master sprawled on the ground, his left hand grasped weakly on his neck. Each finger was coated with crimson liquid, which pooled underneath him. My first thought was that Old Master had over indulged on cranberry juice again. But no, cranberries were out of season. This was blood. And it was the blood of a dead man. My Old Master. My Old Master was dead. And this was his blood.
My heart shouted in pain, but my mouth remained silent. It was a smart mouth and it knew that now was not the time to reveal too much. If Old Master’s neck had bled, then likely it had been slashed open, which meant treachery. Or possibly an assassin. Which would not be treachery since we wouldn’t have trusted the assassin. So that would just be murder.
I backed slowly out the door and listened. The foul deed had been accomplished quickly but the room was a shambles. Old Master would have fought back and that likely meant the killer was injured. But even an injured foe was dangerous. And I was still completely naked from the waist down. Not ideal for a fight.
A rustle caught my ear. Someone moved beyond the silk screens in the back of the room. I reached over and plucked the moth beacon lamp from it’s perch. I had practiced fighting with lamps many times and was considered quite skilled. But I had never used it in a real combat situation. Would my technique hold up?
I stepped into the room.
Across the darkened space, a figure cloaked in all black stepped out. No pretense here.
He pulled his kaiken dagger from it’s hidden sheath and dropped it to the ground. What was this? This man had killed my Old Master with stealth and guile. But now he threw down his weapon before a mere acolyte. I hesitated for a moment then dropped my lamp to the ground. It’s flammable contents spilled upon the ground, soaking into the bamboo mat. We would fight in the “hand” style.
But as I drew my hands back to attack, he surprised me yet again. Slowly, he removed his tabi boots, placing them side by side against the wall. Then with a snap of his fingers he undid the belt sash that crossed his waist and tossed it aside. As he undid his hakama pants, I understood. Before me, he stood naked from the waist down. We were equally matched in almost every way. Despite the cold air.
The moment had arrived. I sprang forward like a tightly wound spring, launching my sodden spider attack with the fury of a single sun. He parried with incredible speed, throwing me off balance just long enough to strike a blow against my side. Thankfully, not strong enough to hurt anything but pride. But I had none of that. I am very humble. So I was OK.
Before I could regroup, he launched a flying kick which carried him across the room like a paper airplane with good stabilizers. I just had time to dodge, his big toe sliding past my temple. This would be no easy match.
Like a blizzard we sparred back and forth, each blow countered and blocked. It wasn’t long till our clothes were soaked through and the floor had become sodden in our sweat giving the room the musty aroma of an oft-used boxing gym. As the fight carried on, the sun finally rose to join us. And below, the other acolytes started their morning chores, oblivious to the struggle above them. Because we were really quiet about it.
As the great orb reached high noon, the last blow was struck and we could strike no more. At an impasse, we both crumbled to the floor, our bodies spent and our minds dreary with fatigue.
It was this moment that he chose to remove his mask. Before me sat a young man as white as cocaine. His hair was damp and matted with his own sweat. And he studied me with a faint smile.
I did not know what to say. So the one word that screamed in my mind came out like a whisper, “why?”
His smile grew. “That is the question we all must answer,” he said.
“I don’t know what that means. I just want to know why you killed my Old Master”, I said.
“But…I am your Master…”, he said.
And I looked and it was true. Though he was many years younger, the man before me was no doubt the same man that lie sprawled dead a few meters from my feet. Old Master was young.
Time traveling Masters were not unheard of. I remembered hearing the stories of the ancient Masters who would pass through time and space to get better deals on rice at the markets of the future. Specialization and market capitalism had made the cost of rice much cheaper so Masters could afford to feed whole dojos without breaking the bank.
But why had my Master traveled forward in time to end his own life? And why was I allowed to witness and survive the occasion.
“I made a promise to myself”, he answered. Was he reading my mind?
“Yes, I am”, he said.
“I swore I would not live past the age that I could be useful. And when the time came, the only man I could ask to end a life, would be myself.” Young Master looked at me like a father to a son. But we were the same age now, so it felt kind of weird.
“You have achieved much in your time here, and now you are ready for the next phase. I chose you to witness my death so that you might learn all things must come to an end.”
I knew this lesson already, because I had a pet iguana once who had died in a grease fire. But I did not wish to correct Young Master.
“Are you ready to follow me to the a new plane, where you will find the next stage of enlightenment?”
I did not know if I was ready, but it seemed like saying “no” would be kind of insulting since he’d gone to a lot of trouble fighting me for six hours and seemed like he would be put out if I rejected him. So I said “yes”.
“Thank you, Master”, I said.
“We are beyond titles now. You may call me Max.”
From his tunic, which was still all he wore, he produced a single match and tossed it toward the shattered lamp.
He reached out and took my hand. With his left foot he drew in the air a kind of left turn arrow and the space between the wall and us filled with a crackle as the fabric of the air spread and grew to allow us passage. He looked at me one last time, then threw us both backwards into the universe crack. The last image I saw as it closed behind us was Old Master’s room engulfed in flame. And then the great crack closed forever.