After Vigoor, Hayabusa faces inner demons the only way he knows how - alone.
A dead chrysanthemum
and yet - isn't there still something
remaining in it?
When Hayabusa first comes home (he tells himself it is only to return her Eye, he is done and has nothing else to give) - when he comes home, spring is just beginning to touch the high points of the mountain, warm breezes stirring branches budding with tiny green leaves and the pale pink of sakura blossoms. The nights are still cold and the delicate leaves are always in danger of being withered in a sudden frost, but when Hayabusa returns the breeze is warm and the ground is soft and wet from melted frost and the air gleams with little fireflies newly born.
If he lets himself think about it the irony is thick enough to cut with his sword, but Hayabusa has become very good at not thinking about things in the past few weeks, and the sight of frayed banners and forlorn headstones amid fresh shoots of grass is not as damaging as it could have been. He is a little worried about seeing Kureha's grave but even that is not so hard-he puts the Eye on her headstone and watches it wink and glitter in the moonlight and though there's a tinge of something it doesn't hurt, (he's gotten good at that too, at ignoring the heaviness in his chest and the stinging at the edges of his eyes) and leaving is easier than he thought it would be.
It's over, he had told her, and he'd meant it. It is over, and he can start again now.
He had meant to leave right away, but he is behind schedule (there's a part of him - an irritating snide part that doesn't shut up - that says, /as if you had a schedule to keep/) and he arrives at the village later than he expected, late enough for him to decide that he should probably stay here, for just one night. He tells himself he'll leave in the morning.
(It's not over at all.)
A week later, the messages start coming.
At first they come speared on iris-decorated kunai. Ryu-sama, the Hajin-Mon would be honored if you would grace us with your presence, they begin in Ayane's delicate script, and he responds with I am deeply touched by your gracious offer but I have duties here I must complete and she writes The Hajin-Mon understand that you must have a great many things to do at this time and so on and so forth, though they are both quite aware that he is doing nothing at all.
Then they come tied to arrows fitted with black feathers - The Tenjin-Mon request the presence of Hayabusa Clan Leader Ryu (Hayabusa almost laughs at this - almost because he is not completely sure that it will come out as laughter) to discuss matters of mutual interest to both parties and though the paper bears Hayate's elegant handwriting the words are not his own. Hayabusa responds with I apologize but I do not have the time for such a meeting - another lie, because all he has now is time, endless time - and though he writes his messages in his own hand they are not his words either.
And one day he receives a very short letter - Ryu, we're worried - and to that he answers, I need time.
The messages stop.
In April (one night had turned into one week and one week became one month; he is beginning to lose track of all the /ones/) - in April the mountains are just shy of blooming into the brilliance of spring and Hayabusa realizes that if he plans on clearing out the debris of the fire he should probably start doing it soon.
The work is harder than he thought it would be-the rain soaked beams are heavy and unwieldy and break apart in his grasp, fat waterswollen splinters jabbing deep into his palms. But splinters are nothing and he ignores them; (the part of him that doesn't like to shut up thinks maybe you ignore too much and Hayabusa pushes that aside too) after three days of dragging the broken house frames out of the streets and tossing them into the woods his hands are raw and bleeding. He wraps them up in soot stained cloths - everything, it seems, is covered in soot, even months after the fire and rain and snow - and continues to clear paths that only he uses now. Every now and then he stops and gazes at the empty houses - sometimes, when the sun is low in the sky and his hands won't bend anymore he goes inside (/only a moment/, he tells himself) and collapses into something like a sitting position.
It is when he lies in a crumpled heap on fading carpets in fading sunlight that he starts to think about what might come next. He thinks of rebuilding the gutted homes and then he'll fill them with people, new clan members (how or where they'll come from is something he doesn't dwell on; it's not important, if you build it they will come, it'll work because he wants it and he deserves it and he knows, he knows, if you want and want and you've done everything right in the end things work out /they have to/) and he dreams feverish wild beautiful insane plans, and then chill wind blows through gaps between the wood, bringing him back to the present. It's dark outside and the day is wasted but it's alright; darkness makes the empty scarred homes look almost normal and moonlight is more forgiving than the sun shining on the charred deadwood still in the streets. When he is finished - and it seems to him that these moments come more and more often - he walks back out to the old Clan Leader's residence, though his gait is not quite as smooth as it should be; very simple acts seem to escape him these days but he isn't sure why.
At night, in that tiny moment between sleeping and waking, Hayabusa thinks of leaving; this can't be good for you/, the part of him that still worries about these things says. /Tomorrow, he promises himself.
Before he falls into uneasy sleep he knows tomorrow will bring no relief.
The mornings are the hardest to deal with. His dreams - he never remembers what they are about but he knows all too well how they feel, how he wakes up with his heart pounding and blood racing and the sickening sense of something crawling in the shadows close to him. Waking offers no relief; instead he waits for the Hayabusa Village to melt around him like an illusion, because he still is not sure that this is real. Being here, being home, and alive, and alone - with no ugly twisted things desperate to taste his blood waiting for him - it seems a dream.
So he waits, hand curled around his Dragon Sword tight enough to make his fingers ache and tear open his battered palm, body tensed and ready to rip apart the things that he knows must be waiting at the edges of his vision. He waits, the sun climbing higher in the sky, bright rays flooding the dark room and shining mercilessly through the gaping holes left in the frame of the residence.
Eventually his grip slackens on the hilt of the sword. Being here, being home, and alive, and alone - this is no dream.
It is the custom of the Hayabusa ninja to cut their hair on their twenty-first birthday-symbolically to indicate acceptance of the burden of shinobi life and the loss of youthful frivolity; in reality it is because long hair is usually more trouble than it is worth. When Hayabusa had been younger he couldn't wait to be rid of it; he'd hated the heaviness of it on his neck, the way it tangled in even the slightest breeze, how it kept falling over his eyes and-most embarrassingly-how his mother spent long hours combing it out and scolding him for not taking better care of himself.
On the fifteenth of June he walks to the room that once held the Dark Dragon Blade. For most ninja the twenty-first birthday came and went with little fanfare, but Ryu is of the Dragon Lineage and his twenty-first would have been the day he would be officially ordained as leader of the Hayabusa Clan. The ceremony itself would be short, with only he and his father and Kureha there; he would kneel in front of the Dark Dragon Blade and place the Dragon Sword in front of him-sheathed-and Kureha would lift up his hair (he can imagine her fingers soft and delicate on the nape of his neck - she had the most beautiful hands, he remembers) and shear it off with a single swipe of her ceremonial /tanto/. Then his father would take the Dark Dragon Blade from its display, and place it in front of him, next to the Dragon Sword.
His father would say to him -
"If a student asked you, 'Master, where does the path to power lie - in darkness or in light?' - what would you tell him?
His answer would have been one he had been preparing for months -
"I would tell him, 'The man who would gain great strength would first pluck out his eyes, so that he might see clearly.' "
If his answer was found acceptable his father would return the Dark Dragon Blade and draw the Dragon Sword; Kureha would hand him a new sheath, made specially for him - his only gift. He would have taken the Dragon Sword from his father and placed it in its new sheath, made the blade his own. And there would be an enormous celebration afterwards, because he was the only dragon-child they had left and he was young and powerful and they expected great things from him.
Alone in the room that Kureha once guarded (was it in this room that she received that fatal blow? - was the faded stain on the wood her blood?), Hayabusa kneels, tugging out the band that holds his thick brown hair back. It is slow going; his hair - hell, everything about him - is a complete mess, tangled and sooty and sticking out in every direction possible. He attempts to brush it out in some semblance of smoothness, tearing out the heavy knots because he has no patience to bother teasing them out. (His mother would be furious. He had been born with her hair and she'd adored it; forced him to sit down while she brushed it out until it was smooth and shining and beautiful while he squirmed and whined and screamed about getting it cut so short it wouldn't even go past his ears.) Eventually his hair is beaten down into something relatively manageable. Hayabusa picks up the kunai he has brought in, raises it to the base of his neck - no swift-cutting ceremonial knife for this; the cedarwood box that had held the tanto and the clothes Kureha would have worn was lost, burnt to ash and warped metal in the raid - and draws the blade over the thick mess of discolored brown hair. But kunai are made for stabbing, not cutting, and only a few wiry strands float to the ground. Hayabusa pulls his hair back as much as possible, making his eyes water and skin tingle from the tightness.
How foolish this must look! The thought comes unbidden and invades his mind as he kneels on floorboards discolored with the blood of his brothers and sisters, his people, wearing a dirty ash-covered black gi and facing the empty display that once held the Blade that drew the blood he sits in now; and all he does is hack and saw at his hair with a dulled kunai like nothing in the world is wrong. As if the missing Blade and missing father and missing Kureha and missing clan were all extras, little asides that he can do without.
He hurls the kunai at the empty display - the bloodied hilt quivering from the force of it - and storms outside, blinking rapidly at the harsh burn of sunlight that fills his eyes with tears.
In July summer is in full bloom, the mountains bursting with colors and fragrance and the air filled with the bright trill of birdsong.
In July summer has yet to touch the Hayabusa Village; the scorched earth bears no flowers or grass or even weeds and taints the wind with the faint smell of flame, and the only birds that fly here are the crows.
In July Hayabusa puts his rebuilding on hold; July is the month of Hatsubon, the first Festival of the Dead after the raid. The first day of the month he writes out everything that needs to be done - making lanterns to guide the wandering spirits back and setting up the shouryoudana to welcome them home; building the frames the lanterns will hang on and cooking food to offer to the deceased - and the enormity of the task almost makes him sick. He has no idea where he will get the materials to make the lanterns or how he'll chop down the trees that he needs to build the lantern frames or how the hell he will find enough food for all the hundreds of people who died, and for the first time in many months, Hayabusa wonders if he will fall short, and he fears.
In Vigoor he had been afraid but that was different; that had been battle-fear, and that was something he could beat down and burn away into anger and rage and focus it behind his blade; he could control it, use it. But in this abandoned village there is nothing to sink his blade into and feel squirm and shudder and die; there is only himself and a town burned past all repair.
In the end, failure had always been his greatest fear.
Hatsubon arrives and somehow Hayabusa has managed to prepare the village properly, even though the lantern-frames are made from the blackened boards of collapsed homes, and there is only one massive shouryoudana set up before the village graveyard (in the end it was too much, there were too many dead and not enough of him to make them all their spirit altars, with the cucumber horses and eggplant cows, and he hopes they understand and find their way home) and the only food he has to offer are plain rice balls and cold water.
On the first day Hayabusa carries armloads of wildflowers to the graveyard and scatters the fragrant blossoms over the dust and ash and stones that make up the mass grave he and Murai dug months ago for his people. The flowers do not stay bright for long; fallen onto black ash and soot, their colors are dulled quickly. He sighs and whispers apologies as he walks, (/forgive me, I am the only one left-be patient and please, come home/) until he comes to Kureha's headstone. The Eye is still there, sparkling in the bright summer sun, and he sighs again, kneeling down to place a sakura branch in front of her grave.
"I'm sorry," he says, his voice rough from lack of use. "I...I meant for this-" - he waves one arm in a wide arc, encompassing the sight of the whole village - "I meant for it to be...better." He falls silent again, straining to hear or see or feel something - the voiceless footsteps of things that have no weight or a cold tingle at his neck caused by fleshless fingers brushing by - anything that might tell him that the wandering spirits have found their way home.
The air is still and warm and the only sounds are the buzz of cicadas and the occasional burst of birdsong. There is not even a breeze to tease his lonely senses into pretending there is something else.
Hayabusa leaves the graveyard, a last whispered prayer of apology leaving his lips.
Obon had always been Kureha's favorite festival. Her parents had died so young she could not even remember their eyes but she still missed them, and to her the idea of long-lost loved ones coming home to celebrate with her was so wonderful she spent all three days smiling and laughing and dancing around the village, dragging a reluctant Hayabusa out of his house to stumble clumsily after her while she spun and fluttered light as a bird through the streets.
Obon used to scare Hayabusa half to death. The idea of old spirits coming back home to eat food (even though they had no bodies!) and sneak around watching him wherever he went (and he couldn't see them!/) had scared him to bits. When he was five he had tried to stop them from coming back by stealing the cucumber horse and eggplant cow, and he'd planned on throwing the lanterns into the river when no one was looking and maybe writing /Please Go Away on the front door for good measure, until Kureha had found the vegetable animals hidden in the corner of his bedroom and told his parents about it. They had punished him by making him sleep right in front of the family shouryoudana to greet his ancestors personally. He didn't sleep at all that night but sat up stiff as board and eyes wide the entire time, certain that his ojii-san (who had died only three months before and was the kind of grandfather whose favorite teaching tool had been the back of his hand) would do something positively awful when he came back.
But this year there is no Kureha to speak to or dance with in the streets or parents to sigh at a son not quite yet ready to take on the burdens of adulthood, and he spends his days in prayer. He says them aloud, at first, until his throat grows hoarse and lips become dry, and then he mouths them silently in front of the shouryoudana where he stays day and night - in the day because there is no point in feasting or dancing or lighting fireworks for only one; at night partly to keep the crows away, partly because he is afraid of missing something precious if he strays too far away, and partly because his body aches terribly from too much work and not enough rest and he cannot drag himself back to the residence without pain.
On the last day of Hatsubon he takes out the little boat-lanterns that will be sent down the river to guide the dead spirits back to heaven. A part of him wonders why he bothers; he has spent each day straining his senses, desperate for any sound or scent or touch, but there is nothing, and finally he sets up the lantern-boats along the rivershore and lights them. It takes hours to complete - there are hundreds of lanterns, one for each lost brother and sister, and Hayabusa's hands are battered, rent open and raw from all of his labor and do not light matches easily. By the time he done the sun has set and the moon is already risen, and the river is the same velvet black as the night sky.
He pushes the little lanterns out one-by-one, and soon the river surface is covered with hundreds of dots of lights, mimicking the starry sky above. Hayabusa watches until the lights begin to blur and his eyes burn, and then he turns away and begins to stumble up the steps leading back to the village. He did not know it would be so hard to watch something so beautiful.
There is a soft pssh behind him - like the sigh of someone dying - as the first lantern sinks beneath the surface of the water, and he flinches at the sound. Then, as if following some unspoken command, the rest of the lanterns follow - not at once but in groups of two or three and it is like one long shuddering last breath and it strikes Hayabusa to the heart, lodging deep inside of him and drawing blood. He slips and his hands reach out to stop him but they are aching and open and bleeding and crumple under his weight and he collapses on the crumbling steps.
The very last lantern falls beneath the surface with a sad little cry, and at the sound of it Hayabusa screams in rage and pounds his broken fists against stone, staining it red. He is bruised and aching and hurting beyond belief and the heaviness in his chest and stinging in his eyes are too much to bear now and he cries out, sometimes curses and sometimes pleas - "I have done everything but there's nothing left, I don't know what to do and I'm sorry and I, I hate you, I hate you all, I /fixed it/, everything, and all I've done is give and give and give and-and there's still nothing and what do I do -"
His fists break open and the steps glisten darkly with his blood. He does not know who he is crying to or what he is screaming and he wants, needs/, something - /anything - to be there, to hurt and tear apart and blame, but there is only the night sky and rotting wood and broken steps and himself. He weeps and he cannot stop; the tears pour forth like his lifeblood and hurt even more.
It is like dying all over again, and when the darkness overtakes him he is thankful for the release.
Something sharp brushes his arm. He twitches.
Green eyes tinged red crack open.
"...bastard," Hayabusa mutters.
The falcon cocks its head to one side.
Hayabusa reaches out to the bird with one hand. He has some vague idea of catching hold of it. Maybe strangling it.
The falcon flaps its wings and clumsily moves backwards, giving an undignified squawk. Hayabusa pushes himself to his feet, wincing at the pain in his hands and glaring at the bird.
"Just - just /go,/" Hayabusa snarls at the falcon. He is tired of vengeance and duty and setting things right; all he wants now is a place where he can lie down and forget everything forever, and he is not even allowed that.
The falcon in question spreads its wings and takes off, circling over Hayabusa once before swooping over to rest nearby the village entrance. Hayabusa claws at the ground with bloodied hands and closes torn fingers over a large stone, then turns to bash the brains out of that goddamn unasked-for bird -
The sight that meets his gaze takes his breath away.
There are falcons everywhere. They perch on the gate walls, on trees, on the rotting frames of the village houses-everywhere he looks. Hayabusa walks up the last few steps, stops. He sinks to his knees, still staring. There must be hundreds, he thinks.
They contemplate each other for a moment, the countless regal falcons and the broken man crumpled before them - and then the falcons suddenly take flight, bursting forth from the village in a black and white cloud that spreads in all directions, no two birds taking the same path. Feathers fall around Hayabusa like rain to cover the scorched earth in soft grays and browns, and the sight makes Hayabusa's vision blur and his eyes sting from the beauty of it.
When the sky clears Hayabusa lowers his gaze back to the now empty village, and notices that the first falcon is still staring at him from the entry gate. Perhaps it is simply a trick of the moonlight, but this falcon's feathers seem unusually vivid; what should be brown is a shining black and instead of gray there is only shimmering white. The bird glides down to rest in front of Hayabusa, and he cannot help but notice the delicate perfection of the animal's claws as it settles.
"I..." He does not know where to begin or what to say. "...forgive me." The falcon flutters closer, and Hayabusa reaches out with shaking hands to pet it; the silken feathers are cool and soothing against his burning bleeding palms.
"I don't know what to do," he whispers at last.
The falcon hops back, its' liquid brown eyes locked onto Hayabusa's own. Then it, too, takes off, soaring high into the night sky and leaving the village far behind. Hayabusa watches it until it is swallowed by the horizon, and then he turns away, walking back to the silent and abandoned village to sleep.
The next morning Hayabusa washes out his raw and bleeding hands in the river and wraps them up in fresh white bandages. Beside him lies a sack that holds his scant belongings; the Dragon Sword lies strapped to his back. He finishes tending his wounds and looks back at the Hayabusa Village behind him.
He really shouldn't leave, not so abruptly; what is left of the houses ought to be taken down, there are still stores of food that will go to waste, and what is left of the weapon arsenal should probably be dealt with too-
He thinks of hundreds of falcons soaring into the night sky.
Hayabusa turns back to the river, to the valleys ahead, and breaks into a run, his feet light on ground, on water, never looking back.
There is nothing left he needs to give.
(It is over.)
glossary (for those who may not know)
Obon: "The Festival of the Dead;" a Buddhist ritual that occurs in the seventh month of the year - July by the Julian calendar, August by the Chinese lunar calendar - in which families prepare to welcome their ancestors back to the world of the living for a short period of time. The actual festival runs for 3 days and is a joyous occasion, with dancing, singing, games and general happiness all around.
The month in which the festival is celebrated differs from region to region. August is the more "traditional" month for the celebration, and if the Hayabusa Clan were real they would probably celebrate in August. But I thought five months was an awfully long time for a person to be angsting, so they celebrate in July here - uh, just think that in this one aspect the Hayabusa Clan are a fairly progressive people! ^^;
Hatsubon: The name of the first Obon that occurs after a family member has passed away.
Shouryoudana: "Spirit Altar;" an altar set up in the home in front of the Buddhist family altar to welcome the souls of departed ancestors. The altar contains special offerings - food, water, flowers, and incense, among other things - and two animals made from vegetables and wooden sticks-a cucumber horse (kyuuri no uma) and eggplant cow (nasu no ushi). The horse represents the wish for ancestors to arrive quickly and the cow represents the wish for them to leave slowly.
first of all - i do not have much first-hand knowledge of Japanese festivals or traditions, so if i have offended anyone by the portrayal of such things in this, i apologize. please don't eat me! ^^ corrections and clarifications are always welcomed.
the question in the twenty-first birthday ritual is an attempt at making something similar to a Zen koan. the question itself (and Hayabusa's answer) are a bit too straightforward to really qualify as a koan (and an appropriate answer), i think, but considering my understanding of Zen can be fit into a thimble - i suppose it could be worse.
c&c is very welcome. and thank you for reading. :)