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Gifu Prefecture, Japan, March 23, 8:09hrs

Ethan waved to the truck driver as he drove off.  A one lane road split of from the mountain highway. Below him laid a sleepy village nestle between the imposing peaks of Kiso mountains. Known as the Japanese Alps, villages like this one are a popular tourist attraction for those who want to ski in the winter or escape the city heat in the summer. The cherry trees blossoms filled the air, a clear sign of spring. As Ethan walked down the branching streets of Hitoshirezu village people bowed and waved hello. Anywhere else in the country his height and facial features would  mark him as a gaijin, but not among these people. They remembered the quite, respectful grandson of the shrine’s priest.  Ethan noticed how little the village had changed since he spent his summers here. Most of the homes where of wood with stone lined thatched roofs.  Few modern buildings existed here, except for the local hotel and bathhouse.

He stopped briefly at that place and made a few inquiries. The manager pointed to a nearby home at the edge of a placid lagoon.  Adjusting his jacked and rucksack Ethan tried to knock on the front door but at the moment his knuckles where about to touch the wood, it opened and a young woman leaped into his arms.

“Oniichan!” screamed the girl. She had long raven locks with a single pink and white stripe running the length of her hair. A small cat with wide eyes and floppy ears stood on it’s hind legs and peered out the door.

“Mariko! How many times have I told you not to call me that!”

She pouted and stuck her tongue out. “Always the downer.” She grabbed his rucksack and tried to carry it, but merely managed to drag it a few feet over the polished wooden floor. Ethan shook his head. He thought about helping her, but that would simply anger her and he was too tired to get into a fight. Abandoning the bag Mariko dashed to the kitchen. “Do you want anything? Breakfast?”

“Sure, why not” said Ethan as he left his shoes on the mat beside the front door and hung his bomber jacket on a rack.  The house has of modern design. Two stories and painted in earthen colors. Large glass doors lead to the patio and exposed a stunning view of the lagoon. Water trickled down the side of the mountain, feeding it. The cat followed him around, his eyes in perpetual surprise. Ethan scratched it behind the ears, which cause it to stand on it’s back legs reaching for more petting.

“Oh Linda, stop that! Now she will not leave you alone” said Mariko.

“I don’t mind. What happened to the other cat?”

“He died shortly after we moved.”

“How come you’re not at the Inn?”

“I sold it. It was to much for me with Mom and Dad gone.”

Ethan remembered how Mariko came to be a member of the family. His grandfather took her in when a fire destroyed most of the inn taking her parents with it. The insurance money covered the damage but no amount of money would bring the Yamashiro’s back from the grave.

“The house looks nice” Ethan said as she served breakfast. “By the way, where is he?”

She pointed toward the a path that lead up the mountain side “Where else?”

“Of course.” As he ate Mariko bombarded him with questions about his travels. Ethan demurred as much as possible between mouthfuls. “I’ll go and see him.”

“Right now?”

“Yes.”

“But…but, you must be tired. I’ll prepare a room for you. You should rest, he will come back down for lunch.”

He was tired from all the traveling. But he wasn’t done yet. Something compelled him to keep going. “I’ll be fine. Thank you for breakfast.”

Mariko eyes narrowed but she said nothing. He walked along the path that lead to the shrine. A steep staircase, the one he dubbed the million and one stairs to hell back when he lived here meandered all the way to the hilltop. He took his time. Wooden boards lined both sides of the stairs. On them the faded remnants of prayers twisted in the wind. The stairs ended on a wide patio. Nestled among the trees was the Shrine of the Mountain Wind. The mid morning sun filtered through the branches casting the building in undulating waves of light and darkness. A young boy swept the floor in front of the main entrance. He stopped suddenly when Ethan approached.

“The shrine is closed” he said. He tried to inject as much authority as he could muster into his words but his voice betrayed him as it shifted wildly in pitch.

“I know, I came to see Priest Toru”.

“He is busy at the moment.”

“Busy sleeping I suspect. OJIISAN!”bellowed Ethan.  The word startled the boy. The man before him did not look Japanese, not exactly, yet his accent was local. He knew that his master had other disciples in the past, but none that called him grandfather. “OJIISAN!”

“I’m coming dammit, I’m coming!” the front door slid open revealing a man in his sixties, yet fit.  He adjusted his kimono as he spoke “Who the hell–”

“Hello grandfather.”

Grandfather and grandson looked at each other and both saw something in each other eyes that only men with similar experiences could comprehend. Toru Ichijo walked toward his grandson and gently patted him in the arm “Welcome back Ethan.”

“Good to see you again grandpa.”

Ichijo turned to the youth holding the broom. “What are you staring at boy, keep at it. You still have to clear the garden before lunch.”

The boy bowed “Yes sir” and continued to sweep the patio.

“Come in Ethan, come in. Its been a long while” the older man guided the younger inside. After taking their shoes off the walked behind the main altar, past the inner garden and into one of the backrooms.

“It has. How things going with the shrine?”

“Oh same old same old. We still get our goverment grant, you know from the historical society and summers are busy of course but right now its a matter of keeping the place in one piece.”

“And you got yourself a new assistant.”

“Yes, he is Homaru’s youngest. Hard working, but has a problem following instructions.”

“If I remember well grandfather, your ‘instructions’ where not very helpful.”

The priest looked up with a faint smile “You rascal! Nothing wrong with my instructions, nothing at all. Of course young men who prefer to while away the time in front of the television playing video games never have time for proper work. But enough about old times, sit down. Would you like something to drink?”

“Beer?”

“That’s the American in you talking” gripped Ichijo.

Ethan sat crossed legged on the floor mat “Oh like you hate it so much. I remember dad bribing you with a case or two from base.”

Ichijo rummaged through a mini fridge in the back of the room “Thank Anheiser-Busch for the fact that you’re here today, boy! No beer, no marriage I told your father. The beer never stopped flowing, until-”

Ethan words filled the awkward void “I’m sure that you got a new supplier.”

“Oh yes, a friend of your fathers stationed in Okinawa”. Grandfather handed the grandson a cold bottle of beer. “Here you go. So what brings you to this lonely corner of the Japan. I would have thought that you would be already in Iowa, or where ever the Army sent you to.” He asked the question not as a beloved family member but as his former teacher, his sensei. A question that demanded an answer.

“I resigned my commission ojiisan. I’m retired now.”

Without looking up Ichijo took another swig from his bottle “I see. I expected that you would be promoted after winning that medal.”

“The offers came, but I had enough of the Army.”

“War is a harsh and cruel mistress. What we must do to protect the flesh tends to scar the soul.”

Ethan was about to ask what did his grandfather knew about war, but he kept his mouth shut when their eyes met again. “I believe the Americans call it the Thousand Yard Stare, do they not?” his grandfather said.

“We do.”

“Get up” Ichijo said gently.

They moved to the back of the temple, to a second shrine. Upon the altar laid a sword in its scabbard. Ichijo took the sword and handed it to Ethan “You are ready.”

Ten years ago Ethan had entered this room and dared touch the same object. When his grandfather saw what he was doing, he merely took it from him and said “You are NOT ready”. He spoke then with the same monotone as he spoke today.

Ethan could not believe what his grandfather was doing “But the sword belongs to the shrine, I can’t take it.”

“The shrine was built to honor the spirits of air and storm that inhabit these mountains. Seven hundred years ago those spirits helped the first of the Toru clan in crafting this blade. Ever since” Ichijo removed a curtain behind the altar “every generation of the our family has wielded the blade. Now it is your turn.”

“I can’t” gasped Ethan. He looked up at the mural on the wall. Fantastic scenes of battle made up the mural. Different men and women battling all kinds of monsters, but always wielding the same sword.

“Whether you wield Tasumaki or not, that is entirely up to you. But it belongs to you.”

Ethan shifted his feet, putting his right foot forward, leaning on it while his left leg slid backwards. His left thumb pushed on circular pommel. He heard the sound of thunder in the distance and smell dampness in the air. Without thinking he said “Its going to rain” and pushed back the sword inside the scabbard.

Toru Ichijo nodded sagely “Indeed it will.”

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  1. By Herding Cats « Sturm und Drang on 20 Feb 2009 at 9:42 pm

    […] The may benefit of use of this method is that I can paint a wide canvass, loaded with characters that gives the narrative a global scope plus an insight into the villains mind. In fact the story starts with a close third person POV of one of the villains. The main character doesn’t appear on stage until the second chapter. […]

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