Sunday, September 14, 2014

Nobu: To Live And Die In Edo Japan

[It was winter's last - and deepest - gasp in the thin mountains of eastern Japan. Nobu, hunted by the shogunate since last summer for refusing to commit seppuku, had reached the end of his run, living as a nightly noodle-maker. Come Spring he vowed to be a new man come what may. "What is life holding your breath?" For a time he took pleasure in the evasion, knowing the fury and consternation he caused among the ruling elite. That much amused him. But that faded as Nobu's focus turned to himself and his own life. He'd once asked himself, "Why die?" But time had come to ask, "Why live?"]

Days turned into a blur:

"Nobu! What are you doing? Have you deceived these rural villagers into thinking you're a simple noodle-maker! Ha! Who could believe such a thing? You cannot deny our time in Edo with your heady wit and drunken escapades. Come out into the open and be free like you used to be! I've missed you - no matter what sort of baka [fool] you may be!"

It was his old compatriot Kenbei speaking. Even in a dream Kenbei could make him smile and Nobu longed to rejoin the repartee of old. As much as he'd hated his samurai life it sorely vexed him to admit any pangs for its passing. Paradise he sought and paradise he'd find. 

But having to hide - and hide everything: his speech, his knowledge, his manners - defeated the purpose of escaping. It's not just about running from but running to something. For the longest time his inner voice pleaded with him on this point and at last Nobu agreed. "When Spring comes," he promised. "When Spring comes..."

Knowing this, feeling better about himself, opened a door within. And as always happens someone walked in: Oyone. He'd seen her before, noticed her, but not made up his mind. But that night - this night - it all changed. Walking on his way back to his crude dwelling, Nobu's head overflowed with thoughts of the intriguing Oyone. She had a sharpness he'd never suspected in a country girl. He'd been a stupid snob. His eyes twinkled in the moonlight and the first time in a long time light shined in his world.

"Does she feel it too?" The usual questions came up as with any beginning, altering the axis of the world and its perspective. The barren winter branches weren't dead, but simply biding their time till life rewnewd. This time, without stupid samurai armor to get in his way, love would be possible. It had been hell and then some getting here but Nobu looked down into the valley of love daring himself to enter.

Didn't take long before the sapling bloomed into a flower. The impossible questions of before ("How can I let anyone in my life when I'm wanted?") didn't seem as impregnable as before. A satisfactory answer had yet to enter his head (knowing anyone caught aiding him would die with him) but now he had hope. Just a few more steps...


Nobu no longer studied every stranger who entered the noodle shop. Traffic dribbled in as the first meltings began but Nobu's exploding heart could not be bothered. Who'd still be chasing him at this point anyway? This was a time for life! But suddenly the little voice spoke out again. "Oh shut up! I already listened to you once. How much more can I stand? I'm near exhaustion as it is! Whose side are you on?" But didn't it pay off before?

Angry with the interruption, he sat down by the road in the faint late afternoon sun. What was to break his heart this time?

That man!

No, no, he was fine, traveling to see his relatives. I haven't stopped all observations. Give me a break and let me return to my love song!

Of course he'd have a cover story. And he admitted he was from Edo.

He carried no swords and only a fool would admit he's from the very place I'd suspect most.

Unless he's a fool who hides in plain sight!

No, no, go away. This is too much! I can't be imagining everyone an assassin! Please let me live.

Suit yourself.

Nobu jumped up and started running for his secret river spot. To have everything snatched from him now - not NOW! "Just let me live! I haven't told her the full truth yet. She only knows I'm taken like never before." Nobu's sobering mind had a thought. "Yes, that's it! That's what's bugging me. Damn, life is hard! No room for mistakes."

Nobu had a gift for deduction. His mind automatically recorded anything "out of tune". He knew from long practice that a voice raised unnecessarily or an open hand showing nothing to hide when never questioned or any other act "out of the flow" could mean something. Sometimes something private, sometimes a plot. And that's where the Edo traveler had failed. He was good - damn good - and only by a perfect play could he be detected. Normally, a fugitive in love stood no chance.

It was the number of days he'd said he'd been on the road from Edo, the capital. Nobu listened to every conversation in the noodle shop even as he pretended not to. But this man took few chances, always in normal tones, nondescript. Still, the number was wrong. If the man had traveled these roads before, if he really was from the northern town he mentioned, the number would be lower. But if he'd been roaming the area searching for a runaway samurai, he'd lose track of his true distance from Edo.


What to do? What did he say? He said he was leaving the village. No time to waste to see his ailing father. Nobu checked both inns in town and sure enough he was gone. Knowing that should make him relax, it put him on guard. The 100 ryo bounty, the grinning, gloating shogunate displaying Nobu's head on a pole - yes, what a fool to think they had stopped so easily. With love on his doorstep, this enraged Nobu and he put all his wits into action.

The next couple of days nothing happened. "I may have made a mistake inquiring at the inns if he'd been spying on me. If so, I may never see him coming." Nobu kept to his same routine except for one: he put a dummy in his bed each night. With only one weapon had Nobu displayed proficient skill and that was with the knife. There in the dark with his steely eyes and knife raised he waited. If the assassin didn't show up soon he'd have to think of a more sustainable plan.

On the third night he came. The bastard was good, coming deep in the night, taking no chances. With the maddening doubts finally cleared away, Nobu's sweaty fingers prepared for the all-deciding throw. "Remember: not until you're sure!" The shadow passed his window in silence, at one with the surroundings. It almost seemed as if in a dream. In fact, the startled Nobu had not even noticed the throwing of the shurikens into his hut. But the assassin refused to immediately enter. Perhaps he suspected his target had not been a real body.

Nobu maintained discipline knowing curiosity would most likely win out and force the bounty hunter into the open. Then again, this guy was very good and may just slink off back into the night. Several tense moments passed. Then finally, a small shadow peeping through the window. "Not too soon!" Satisfied, the shadow made for the door - and that's where he made his fatal mistake. He stopped, framing himself for Nobu's knife instead of entering nonstop until he reached a place of darkness. With the first choking sounds, Nobu rushed over and finished the job. He'd never killed anyone before.


CODA: Nobody knew the name of the ragged stranger found dead on the mountaintop. Due diligence was done but found fruitless, the body burned in anonymity. This forever sealed the legend of Nobu. Speculation had him escaping to Korea or hiding in the southern islands to taking up with outlaws or even turning to farming. Speculation also had him dying in any of a dozen places. None suspected a fractured heart entombed in loneliness. The truth was never known and in a small but significant way, respect for the shogunate and samurai in general diminished permanently.

After the assassination attempt, Nobu ran as far away as possible. The reality of it had been too much, losing the nerve to ask Oyone to share his hunted life. She deserves better, he told himself. ("But shouldn't she make that decision?") Truth was, he feared to know her answer. Already on the brink of exhaustion and not daring to stop again, his body simply gave out. Time ran out. Perhaps Nobu had been ahead of his time, needing the freedom to come in the centuries ahead of which he'd envisioned, when life is honored and all the world bathed in light.

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