The Art and the Way
Chapter 1 – The Eku Battle
Peiching turned to face the closest samurai and a feeling of resolution descended over him, as if this were the place, for better or worse, where he would make his final stand. At that moment he made up his mind that he would run no longer – whatever the outcome, it would be resolved now.
He picked up the oar from the fisherman’s boat. With all the bravado he could muster, he stood straight and erect on the beach. Not really certain why, he took the oar in his left hand and held it in front of him, with the handle straight up and the tip of the paddle stuck in the sand. He glanced down and noticed the fisherman’s net half buried in the sand beside him. Keeping the samurai always in his vision, he reached down and picked up one end of the net, holding it at his side, obscured slightly by his hip.
He feigned as much confidence as his shaky legs would allow. With his hand outstretched in front and his shoulders held back, he looked like he might have been presenting an award or announcing a special event. The two samurai slowed, then stopped.
Their demeanor became cautious again. Peiching wondered what they must have been thinking. Here was a lone man facing them with an oar. It must have looked almost comical. They probably thought him crazy, but they would also understand the strength of the freedom of lunacy. Whatever the case, their mental acuity had peaked. It was their caution, their awareness of potential danger, their “zanshin” that had kept them alive, after all, through so many battles. They would not lose it now in the face of a crazy man with an oar.
Peiching tried his best to quell the trembling in his legs and hoped the Satsuma would not notice. Perhaps they might mistake it for the breeze ruffling his clothes. He needed time to make a plan, but he had none. His time had ended.
Past the handle of the oar, he watched the advancing warriors. He felt the empty net in his trembling fingers, hidden slightly behind his leg. The beach was narrow enough here that they had to approach him one at a time, and they would not walk close to the rocks for fear of a trap. They inched their way toward him, alert to all directions.
Looking at the cold stare of their eyes he realized that it was not their intention to arrest him. They wanted nothing short of his death, here and now. Later, they would hang his head on a pole in the middle of Shuri, as a warning to anyone else who might consider defying the authority of Shimazu’s army.
Peiching sucked air deep into his dan tien as he had done before, and the focused calm began to settle over his body once again.
He watched his two opponents approach along the narrow stretch of beach. They each positioned themselves in a different kamai, ready to attack or defend. The closer man had his sword raised vertically at his right side, his two hands grasping the handle at the level of his chest with the blade extending above his head. He edged through the sand toward Peiching slowly, cautiously, as if he were feeling each grain of sand with his toes, his gaze locked on Peiching’s eyes, searching for some sign of weakness or doubt.
The other samurai stood alert in the rear and scanned the surrounding area. His sword was low at his right side, the blade pointing behind him. His hand twitched slightly on the hilt at every flutter of breeze or jerk of errant gull that happened to turn its inquisitive head. He crept away from his companion toward the overhang on the shore, aware of every shadow.
Their zanshin, the ever-present awareness of the warrior familiar with death, had kept these men alive in the heat of battle, as well as the deceptive calm away from it. Even in their sleep they maintained it. It was born of endless years of concentration and practice and the intuition that was won on the wild, bloody melee of the battlefield.
At this moment Peiching was grateful for the caution. It granted him time to recover his breath somewhat and afforded him the dubious opportunity of facing them individually.
It occurred to Peiching that here he was alone again, as his lot had always seemed to be. The fisherman was off trembling in fear somewhere. The thought of him came and went with the sea wind. Peiching allowed the idea of his own perpetual loneliness to flitter like a ghost through his consciousness for a heartbeat, then forced his attention to return to the survival at hand. Self-pity would not keep him alive.
The first samurai worked his way closer, his sword ready, his body poised to react to the slightest change in Peiching’s position. It seemed like he adjusted his kamai with every breath Peiching took, changing almost imperceptibly to nullify any potential advantage. He approached cautiously but his bearing revealed his certainty that the battle and the day belonged to him. In spite of this certainty, his gaze flicked from Peiching’s eyes to the oar and back again, searching for a clue to a plan. His expression was a question. However ludicrous the idea of fighting against an oar seemed, his zanshin would not allow him to underestimate an opponent.
Peiching understood this. As he watched the man close the distance, a poem popped into his head from some remote corner of his subconscious
One dream all heroes find
Comes true, cool green grass
On forgotten tombs.
He did not remember ever learning the poem, the haiku of a Zen priest. It appeared in his head now for some unknown reason, probably conjured up from the disorientation of facing the end of his own existence. Peiching shook his head to rid himself of the phantom thought and focus his attention on the death that faced him. Death was important, he thought, it deserved his undivided attention.
The samurai inched to within a few feet of Peiching, to the precise striking distance of the sword he clutched at his shoulder. He knew within a fraction of an inch how far to stand away from his target. He practiced the cut a thousand times a day. Had he wanted, he could have severed the sash that held Peiching’s cloak together without scratching the skin underneath, such was his skill with his weapon. But he did not want to do that. He wanted to kill the man as quickly as he possibly could.
His eyes fixed in an intense stare that turned Peiching cold inside. There was no humanity in the man’s expression. No emotion at all. No hate, no love, no anxiety – just cold determination. He was prepared to kill without hesitation. It was as ordained as the sunrise in the morning or the flow of the tides on the beach. No errant thought distracted his concentration. No fear of death would slow his hand in the final seconds. He had long ago resolved his conflict with death. That was the samurai code that he lived by every day of his life – to die in the service of his lord. There was no greater honor. He would do it gladly, welcome it even, and that determination to kill or die made him a nearly invincible foe.
Peiching watched his intent executioner’s blade glint in the sun. He gazed in awe at the craftsmanship of the weapon that was about to sever his head from his body. He knew its history. There had never been a better bladed weapon crafted by the hand of man. He knew weapons and appreciated them. He appreciated this one. He knew that it had been forged by a technique passed down through generations, a technique of laminating two types of steel over and over again in a process that created thousands of layers in one blade. One steel was soft so the blade would not chip or break when struck against another. The other steel was hard to maintain the razor sharp edge. There would be no flaw in it. It would slice through his skin easily, exactly the way it was intended. It had a soul of its own that would always lead it to the hands of a warrior with a spirit to match. It was an honor to die by such a blade. Peiching appreciated that.
The samurai was less than three steps away, and Peiching could see his own reflection in the warrior’s eye.
Peiching brought his attention back to the moment and breathed deeply again. His muscles relaxed slightly, and, as before, he became acutely aware of his surroundings. The waves caressed the soft sand. He listened to them and thought about his existence. What was life anyway, a few years of eating and shitting and making children, then death? What did it matter? In a hundred years – no, much less – all this would be forgotten, and the world would continue spinning without even so much as a hint that he had ever existed.
He smelled the fresh sea air and felt the warm morning sun on his shoulders. He thought that it was quite a pleasant day and a nice place to be, except for the fact that his life was about to end in a few more seconds. If he had to die, though, this would certainly be a fine place and a good way – fast and sure at the hands of a warrior without peer in the art of killing. He briefly thought about dropping the oar, charging the samurai and ending the charade once and for all.
Like a flash of sunlight, the decision was abruptly taken from him. The samurai leaned forward in his attack. His scream seemed to emanate from somewhere else, from some location outside both of them. It was intense and unnatural, and Peiching could hardly believe it came from a man. His muscles froze in paralyzed terror, just as the attacker had intended. He stared blankly at the blade descending toward his head.
The world shifted gears and took on the eerie feeling of slow motion. Peiching could hear the “whish” of the blade cutting through the individual molecules of air. He waited. All creative thought abandoned him. Fear finally relinquished its death grip, and his body and unconscious mind jumped to react without perceived impetus.
Unplanned, un-devised movements emerged from somewhere inside of Peiching. His right foot flashed forward of its own accord, and as the samurai closed the distance it kicked the flat paddle of the oar that Peiching had crammed into the sand. The paddle in turn scooped the loose sand and sent it into the air. The samurai, intent on his cut and at his most vulnerable point, caught the sand full in the face and jerked his head away. His cut, so precisely initiated, was parried off the broad edge of the paddle as it flew skyward, and the sword buried itself in the soft wood.
Peiching’s hands were directed by some inner sense of preservation that had been planted inside his spirit by some incident of his teacher’s arduous training. They twisted the oar, wrenching the sword from the Satsuma’s grasp, and sent it splashing into the sea. As the warrior’s hand instinctively reached for his wakazashi, Peiching hurled the net into the air and caught the man’s head. He yanked the net, pulling his assassin off his feet. As the man fell, Peiching clenched the oar with his two hands, raised it above his head, and smashed the base of the samurai’s skull with the hard, sharp wooden edge. The samurai’s head came half away from his body, and Peiching watched it roll into the water at his feet.
Peiching’s mind screamed in confusion. The incongruity of the instant made his conscious try to jerk free from its physical constraints. The world twisted on its axis. Nothing seemed real anymore. He wondered what had happened. He should be dead, but he was still standing. He had been dead; he was sure. He heard the seabirds scream.