The cold heavy steel feels like hot ice, burning his hands and yet he can’t put it down. His novice hands trembling with a mix of fear and adrenaline. They feel like rubber, like they aren’t his, a puppet being controlled by invisible strings. A cold sweat drips down his back, colder than the blood that has stopped running though his veins.
His breath explodes in his lungs, and his chest burns with each breath. He’s breathing so fast that he can’t tell when one breath ends, and the other begins. His heart jumps around in his chest, frenetic, angry, and unable to stabilize the chaos that is brewing within. He can feel the thud of each heartbeat reverberating throughout his body. A thundering cage that he can’t escape, each thud threatening to throw him off balance.
His senses 100% attuned to their highest degree, in the inky darkness, as he hears a crackle of branches to his left and pulls. The recoil sends his left arm jerking back, it was much stronger than he had expected. He nearly loses his balance on the icy ground. The blast echoes in his ears, creating a deafening horrific loop of recorded madness. The flash illuminates his face with a strong searing light, like a flashbulb that takes a photo of the immense dread, written all over his face. He’s blinded for a moment. All he can see is an intense bright white light, scorching his retinas.
The adrenaline has caused searing hot tears to fall across his cheeks. Their heat stings off of the cold that has enraptured his body. He had no idea he was crying and tries to speak, but the words gets clogged in his throat, forming a clot of fear that he can’t spit out.
The Jonin Ceremony
It has only been a few weeks since Shingen’s death in the Dragon Bellow Wars, and the morale of the Neko ninja clan has been wavering. Chizu, sister of Shingen, has now become the de-facto leader. She has a level head, likes to use intelligence over brute force, and she always has a plan. She will stay the leader of the clan no matter the cost.
As brother to both Chizu and Shingen, Gunji has other plans. He wants to be leader since Chizu doesn’t have what it takes. He knows how to use the clan’s power & might to be feared by all.
Su Li, the outcast half-sibling to Chizu and Gunji, is tired of being in the shadows and hidden from both the clan and her siblings. Chizu and Gunji have no idea they have another sibling, let alone one who also vies to be leader. Su Li’s time to shine is now.
It’s the day of the Jonin Ceremony. The official leader will be declared today, and all of the Neko ninja clan will be in attendance at the Neko temple compound. Each ninja must first plead their case & the decision will be held to a vote by the clan. As de-facto leader, Chizu goes first. “I’ve worked tirelessly behind Shingen, using my planning, insight & my intelligence to save lives during the Dragon Bellow Wars. As your leader, I will build us back into the great clan that we once were. Choose me and choose life, choose greatness!” A roar sweeps over the crowd & the entire clan bows with Chizu joining them.
Gunji with a smirk on his face now stands at the center of the hall. “Chizu, you simply don’t –” the large bamboo doors swing open & Su Li enters. The clan members look behind in surprise. “Who are you?! How dare you interrupt my ceremony!!!” snarls Gunji. “I am Su Li, your half-sister & I will be leader! No longer will I be kept aside in the shadows like an unwanted kimono. My time in the light is now & I will shine bright as clan leader!"
Gunji runs up & angrily swings his kitana at Su Li, she spins her kimono sleeves high in the air to dodge his attack. She grabs her knife, which she had sheathed, holding up her hair. She lunges forward & the knife grazes Gunji’s side. Chizu reaches into her kimono sleeve & fires her lotus flower shaped shuriken at Gunji. One catches his left ear, while the other finds its mark on his right hand, slicing the top of his thumb, clean off the bone.
Gunji screams & drops to his knees, while reaching into his sleeve to retrieve his poison dart bamboo straw. Its already loaded with his deadly black mushroom poison. He aims at Chizu & she spins to dodge the darts, but one lands in her neck. Stunned, she pulls out the dart & collapses. Gunji cocky with defeat revels for a moment, while Su Li throws her own shuriken. Gunji tries to turn his head but it’s too late. The metal lodges deep in the center of his forehead, blood oozing down his face. The clan gasps in astonishment & immediately bow facing toward Su Li.
Shamisen in Gion
Kiku closes the paper screen door behind her & opens her parasol. Its yellow water lily pattern with delicately painted green leaves, shields her from the steady drizzle. She makes sure to deflect any rain from hitting her face, she doesn’t want to ruin the oshiroi* that’s been carefully smoothed onto her face. In her other hand, she holds her rectangular bamboo shamisen case. She shuffles along at a steady pace, her cream colored zori sandals hopping around to avoid puddles.
Anxiety, nervousness and excitement flutter throughout her body, as tonight is her very first shamisen performance. Kiku has been waiting for 6 months, practicing her shamisen technique, music reading and performance etiquette. She reaches the corner and turns left onto Hanami Lane. Every other house has a lit paper lantern over their doorway. The classic machiya* with their wooden window shutters, low dark gray scalloped tile awnings, and caramel colored fencing lining the sides. Each house appears like a firefly in the night, leading her closer to the ochaya* where she will have her performance.
Kiku reaches the end of the street and pauses, she catches her breath as well as the beautiful expanse that lies a few feet away, Shirakawa Canal. This is her absolute favorite part of Shirakawa, maybe even of the entire Gion district. The tall willow trees with their massive drooping branches, mimic the melancholy of this rainy night. She’s always loved these trees for their duality to evoke both beauty and sadness all at once. The closed buds of small orange poppies and pink roses, are like bright dots of confetti, sprinkled all throughout the canal’s edge.
The soft glow of lanterns flicker behind the paper screen blinds of the houses lining the canal. She reaches the Shirakawa bridge, crossing it slowly, taking in the magnificence of the canal to inspire her performance. She hopes to evoke such splendor during her shamisen playing.
At the end of the bridge she takes a sharp left onto Higashi-Oji street. It’s a small winding alley barely wide enough for two people, her shamisen case almost touching the wooden walls as she makes her way through. This street curves through the backs of the many takoyaki* houses that can be found in Shirakawa. She can see swirls of smoke rising from their tiled roofs, as the sweet and smoky smell of her favorite snack, makes her belly growl with hunger. She musn’t give in, she will have plenty of takoyaki* to celebrate at the end of her performance. She reaches the end of the street and makes a right onto Imadegawa street.
The nerves begin to ripple out from her chest and get caught in her throat, she coughs and nearly drops her shamisen case. She pauses to compose herself, a geisha must always remain composed: especially when in view of the public. She smoothes out her navy kimono, with its bright turquoise wave pattern surrounding the hem and her sleeves. Gold thread has been added for touches of sparkle and drama. She adjusts her gleaming white obi*, making sure it’s tight and in place, then continues on.
A few houses down on Imadegawa street and she sees it, the noren* of the Hanami Ochaya. The characters for Hanami printed in black on silver cotton fabric. It looks like a moon in a cloudless sky, a beacon to those lost in the night, but for Kiku it will be her spotlight. She stops outside the entrance. She’s out of reach from the lantern light, spilling through the half drawn paper blinds. She takes a deep breath, tries to relax her mind and drown out the various voices coming from the Ochaya. The familiar scent of jasmine incense, drifts around her. She says a prayer, opens her eyes and parts the noren* with her left hand. She watches her hand tremble for a moment, as she walks into the soft bronze-tinged light.
Oshiroi – a white foundation paste that is used as part of a Geisha’s makeup.
Ochaya – a teahouse.
Machiya – wooden townhouses built for city life, usually two to three stories high.
Takoyaki – a ball shaped Japanese snack, made with wheat flour batter and cooked in a special ball shaped pan. It’s typically filled with minced octopus.
Obi – a wide sash used with traditional Japanese attire.
Noren – a traditional fabric divider that is hung between rooms or in doorways of establishments. They usually have one or more vertical slits which allow for easy viewing inside as well as easy passage to walk inside.
A Mother Left Behind
The only thing she can hear now is the humming of the fridge. Its bare stainless steel doors, she can see the outlines of the photos, which were practically embedded into the steel, being in the same spot for so long. Now they’re gone, as she brushes her fingertips slowly along the ridges of the cold outlines left behind, empty memories, no longer full of life.
The earthy notes of French vanilla coffee brewing, sweet and savory, wafting through the air. It was their favorite flavor, no longer does the smell bring a smile to her face. She reaches into the red cupboard, it’s hue doesn’t look as bright now. When did it get so dark? She pulls out two mugs, her favorite pastel blue one, with a white daisy and a yellow mug. She sets them down on the countertop with a thud and hears a crack. The yellow mug with the red ladybug, Layla’s favorite insect as a child, her nickname growing up was little ladybug. The crack has now split the ladybug in half. In one swift movement, she pushes the broken yellow mug into the sink. She took out two mugs out of habit, she only brewed enough coffee for one.
She pours herself a cup, holds it in her hands for a few moments, to warm her cold hands, and makes her way up the stairs towards Layla’s room. She admires the quilt laid on top of the bed, she made this for Layla a few years ago. Its pastel pink with delicate white lace trim. She had a hard time adding the lace, cut her finger, and couldn’t get out the spot of blood left behind. She spots it as she twirls the lace tightly around her finger, so tight that her finger turns white. She takes a sip of coffee and it has gone cold, it never used to get cold so fast.
Leo wakes with a reverberating pain echoing inside his head. Intense pressure building behind his eyes, he can’t remember why he was on the floor. The metallic taste of blood floods his mouth, coating his throat, he coughs but nothing comes out. Leo staggers around realizing he’s in the basement. He sees Grandpa’s tall oval shaped mirrors, wrapped in soft bamboo blankets. He makes his way up, hearing his brother Rafael running around the house.
He can’t feel the cool sea salt air blowing throughout the house. Rafael runs past him, carrying Leo’s beloved red linen shirt. “Hey, what’s going on?” Leo yells running after Rafael, to no reply. Rafael stops in the kitchen, seeing Grandpa hunched over his special occasion ceremonial tome. “Hey Grandpa, what’s the special occasion, has my birthday come early this year?” Leo asks from the kitchen doorway, with a large grin. Grandpa doesn’t look up, continues flipping pages and suddenly stops. Leo gets close to look over his shoulder. “Ceremony for Remembrance” Leo says softly. Grandpa lead the ceremony when Leo’s mother passed away. Leo’s heartbeat begins to race, and the air drains from his lungs. “Grandpa!” He reaches out to touch him but his hand goes right through. “Grandpa! What’s happened to me! I can’t
Leo tries to catch his breath, glances out the window, and sees the Village Elder Norius approaching the house. Wearing his black robe, encrusted with light pink Rose Quartz stones, a crystal known to bring comfort during times of grief. Norius enters the house, announcing he’s ready. Rafael and Grandpa follow Norius out the door. Leo sticks close behind them as they enter Norius’s home.
Sandalwood incense smoke creates a cloudy haze. Small white candles on tall golden candlesticks, offer glimpses of warm light, like headlights driving through a foggy highway at night. On the altar, is a bamboo box containing his body. Tears stream down as he cries out running towards the box. He reaches in, touches the smooth abalone shell pendant on his chest, the turquoise hues glinting in the candlelight. His favorite object: a gift from his mom. Suddenly, he hears his mother’s voice whispering softly, “time to come home my love.”