The Three Arrows
Chapter One: Eisaku
The castle-town of Hagi lies in a small delta facing the dark waters of the western sea. It is a marvel of engineering, a tiny fan-shaped island that splits a fast-flowing river into two. And not even an island at first, but a mere spit of earth—more silt and water and swaying reeds than actual land—a shifting, precarious foundation on which to build. And yet they did.
Now the hard-packed earthen roads are lined by cheerful shops selling everything from rice to candles to bolts of the finest silk for kimonos. Among the wooden houses covered with grey ceramic roof tiles—thick and heavy so that the fiercest of hurricanes will not blow them away—there are teahouses with graceful gardens, and shimmering ponds with fat lazy golden carp. And here and there, tendrils of incense curl up from the many temples and shrines—droning chants of priests ever competing with the splash of the tiny canals that wind their way through the town: busy busy busy on their way to the sea.
Yet for all its loveliness and the rich bounty of its oceans, generations of castle-lords have yearned to leave this place.
For Hagi is surrounded by mountains—mountains upon mountains that rise like waves, like dark towering clouds, cruel barriers that hinder access to the sun-drenched coastlines of the eastern shore. Ah, the eastern shore...it is in the east, after all, that the sun rises, and the great highways and trade routes unfurl. For lords and their restless warriors, the location of Hagi—too far, too far in the remote west—is far from desirable.
That is why, long ago, the cunning ruler of the land commanded that his most powerful rival build his castle there.
And that is why, for centuries, Hagi samurai have slept with the soles of their feet facing the ruler’s distant capital in the east, each generation dreaming of revenge: “Someday, someday soon, we will grind you into the earth for your treacheries…”
Eisaku also sleeps in the proper position, but only because that is how his bedding is laid out for him each evening.
He too is samurai, but he is also only four years old. His mother has only begun to teach him the history of the clan, the many grievances that have sustained it over hundreds of years.
Eisaku already knows that his father is an important advisor to the lord, and serves in the castle.
He also knows—for Eisaku’s mother is very wise—that most of his noble warrior-class, including his many step-brothers, have very little to do each day but to study and train. And complain.
“And drink sake,” his mother always adds, softly, as is prudent in a house of paper walls.
For Eisaku will not become a mere Room-Dweller, she has seen to that. Eisaku might be the youngest and most minor of sons, but when he is full-grown—when he is twelve, perhaps, or even fifteen, if his mother has her way—Eisaku will become heir to his own House, no matter that it belongs to a lowly merchant.
“It is a most prosperous House,” his mother tells him, with that small secret smile she only ever shares with him. “One that sells sake, a great deal of sake.” She raises her arm then, so that the long silk sleeve of her kimono falls before their faces, shutting out the rest of the world. “A modest beginning, full of uncertainties, for merchants have no status and only coins,” she whispers. “But it will be enough for you to build your own great place in the world. For yes, you will.”
Eisaku does not always understand everything his mother tells him, but he knows this subject pleases her very much. Though sometimes she sighs, and wipes away a tear.
All in all, though, he is a happy little boy.
He does not yet dream of vengeance, but falls asleep each night listening to the gurgling of the countless streams coursing through the town, flowing endlessly towards the dark starlit sea.
It’s a fine spring day, not even a wisp of cloud, only a solitary hawk circling high in the sky.
Eisaku bounds into the spacious entrance of the Fujita Brewery House, so eager he’s forgotten to wait for his maid. She follows a moment later, gasping for breath as she parts the long rectangles of cloth that separate the cool dark interior from the brightness of the street.
“Welcome, little master.” The servants greet him as they always do, dropping to their knees and bowing. If he’d been older he might have noticed the looks exchanged between the houseboys, the clerks, the maids.
But as he sits on the raised floor, removing his sandals carefully as he’s been taught, all Eisaku can think of is the rabbit.
Obligatory cheerful greetings completed, he’s soon trotting—not running, for a master-to-be must always maintain his dignity—along narrow wooden corridors, covered verandas open on one side to manicured gardens, azaleas in full bloom.
It’s only when he’s deep in the recesses of the House, about to clamber down into the small courtyard at the very back of the compound, that he first hears it.
Faint moans, as of someone in distress. They come from rooms further down the corridor. The sliding panel doors there are firmly shut against the sunny day.
“Is someone hurt?” he asks, frowning, because it is always proper for one of his standing to show concern.
His maid looks up from where she’s kneeling to help him put on fresh sandals.
“Perhaps it’s the mistress,” she says, then blushes.
Eisaku frowns harder. “I must go and see her,” he says, for his Mother-to-Be is always kind to him.
“No. Not now.” She tugs him down. “She’s with child, you know. It must be her time.”
“With child?” He’s astonished, mystified. “There’s a child in there?” The prospect of a playmate surprises him; he’s never had one before. He begins to wiggle, almost forgets about the rabbit.
But then the moans begin again, an awful sound, its echoes shimmering unpleasantly down his spine. That does not sound like a child.
“It’s the mistress, I’m sure of it. You’ve seen how big she’s become.” His maid places a reassuring hand on his knee. “Everything will be fine. She’s in pain now. But that’s how it is, how women bring children into the world. You’ll see. It’ll be over soon.”
Even as she speaks, silence falls, a liquid heavy thing that rings in his ears.
Shivering, Eisaku wavers, darting another look down the corridor. His mother has not advised him on this, and the maid’s hand on his is firm.
Well, then. First things first.
He sprints across the courtyard to a bamboo enclosure, reaches down, and tenderly pulls out the rabbit. Discovered in the compound a month ago, no one knows where it’s come from, or how. It’s beautiful—white as a cloud from ear to tail. It smells as sweet as newly-steamed rice. The head brewer had declared it an excellent omen, and Eisaku’s visited every day since. He’s never had anything to care for before, and now he thinks about the rabbit from the moment he wakes to the moment he falls asleep.
Now, how warm it is in his arms, how alive. It knows him, trusts him, does not struggle at all, but settles in quickly, content. Eisaku feels its soft heart thumping against his forearm, feels his own heart beat in response.
Holding the rabbit in the crux of his arm, Eisaku reaches into his kimono sleeve, pulls out the treat he’s saved from his lunch. A delicate bean-paste sweet shaped like a carrot. He laughs, delighted, as the rabbit stretches out its neck, sniffing.
And then there’s a terrible scream. He freezes. The rabbit does not, but lunges for the sweet and bites Eisaku’s finger instead.
Eisaku cries out, drops the animal. He’s never felt such pain before. It’s sharp, but the shock of betrayal is even sharper. Without thinking, he kicks the rabbit as hard as he can. It flies an arm’s length away, lands with a dull thud on its head, and then there’s a flurry of dark wings.
Eisaku raises his arms to cover his face, and the maid runs to protect him—but there’s nothing to protect him from.
For the hawk is already high above the rooftops, the white rabbit dangling from its talons.
Fujita, Eisaku’s Father-to-be, sits on the tatami mat, his legs tucked under him, back straight. His wife lies beside him in bedding made fresh by her maids, but her hair is still matted by sweat, her eyes glazed with exhaustion, with despair.
Fujita can barely think, can barely breathe.
Two, there were two…
The stuff of myths, of tales that always end in misery.
His wife trembles beside him. They know she’ll be called Beast-Belly, if not to her face, then behind her back. For only animals give birth to litters. To twins…
Fujita tries to clear his mind, to somehow just think.
If he’d never touched the first infant, had not felt its feather-light warmth in his arms…if he’d never laid eyes on it, would it then be easier to give consent?
Swaddled in long strips of white gauze, the babe now lies on a flat cushion, its tiny mouth opening and closing, its eyes tightly shut. None of the maids will touch it. Fujita thinks it might be whimpering—but it’s on the other side of the large room, and the midwife’s voice drowns out all other sounds.
Fujita clenches his fists tighter on his thighs.
The woman hasn’t stopped talking since she arrived. She’s on her knees on the freshly-woven tatami mat, leaning over a round wooden tub filled with steaming water. One hand cradles the head of the second infant, with the other she gently wipes its face with a wet cloth. The newborn makes a little mewling cry as she gently lifts it out of the water, handing it to a maid who wraps it carefully in towels.
This second infant will soon be presented to him.
No. Not the second infant. Fujita has to shake his head again to correct his thoughts. He keeps forgetting. Not the second infant, this is the elder one….
But who could blame him for his confusion?
Just a short while ago, the first child had been born, and why wouldn’t he have assumed that this was their longed-for son? Cries of joy, much clapping and cooing by the maids. Fujita had found himself smiling so long and so hard he wondered if his cheeks might splinter and crack.
But then he saw that his wife still seemed to be in pain.
“She’s not as young as some first-time mothers, that’s all,” the midwife said, though her sharp eyes never left his wife’s face.
It was true that his wife was old, almost thirty-five. That’s why the adoption arrangements had been made, after all. Why Eisaku was to legally become heir one day. Why things had turned awkward when his elderly wife had become pregnant.
For months he’d taken the whispered gossip and innuendos with grace, remained silent at rumors of Eisaku’s mother, her displeasure.
Yet none of it mattered, not in that miraculous moment he’d first held his son, the first boy, proudly in his arms.
But even as he’d gazed with wonder at the tiny face, his wife had begun to moan again, to shudder, to writhe.
The infant had quickly been taken from him. He’d been ushered out of the room, the maids firmly shutting the sliding panel doors behind him.
And when at last he had been called back, there was a new baby in the bathwater.
“The second was born later because he was much deeper in the womb,” the midwife’s saying. She’s explaining it all again, slowly, taking his silence for dullness, incomprehension. “This one was conceived first, you see, so he’s the elder. The first one was obviously just the dew-sweeper, sweeping a path clear for his elder brother.”
It makes sense, of course. As he watches his new elder son being wiped dry, Fujita studies it carefully. He sees that this infant is indeed slightly larger, more sturdily built than the first. It is obvious that he’s been in his mother’s womb longer…
Then midwife gestures for the sweeper to be brought to her.
Fujita’s throat begins to burn as she removes the swaddling. Yes, this babe is certainly smaller, the movements of its thin arms and legs much more feeble.
“Twins are terrible omens,” the midwife is saying. “A perversion, a twisting of the world. It’s unnatural for a human to….”
Fujita wills her to stop, almost shouts at her to stop, but for the sake of his wife he sits as still as stone.
The midwife lifts the infant, her movements gentle and slow. She begins to lower the babe into the warm water, immersing its legs, its small body, its neck. She cradles its head with one hand, keeping the tiny face above the surface. She stops.
“It’s a difficult decision, but the quicker the better, you’ll see.” The midwife turns toward Fujita, and he sees no joy in her wrinkled face. “I shall be quick. The water is warm—it will be painless. Families have their reasons. I have done this before.”
Fujita cannot breathe. Beside him, his wife begins to weep.
But this is not a time of famine, he wants to shout, and we’re not some poor peasant family with too many mouths to feed.
He is as fearful of omens as anyone else. Merchants trust in fortune, in fate. Each morning the entire House prays to the gods, big and small. They pray for good harvests, that storms will not strike the trading ships, that business will be good, that their sake will not spoil but be clear and sweet.
Fujita trembles. He is as afraid as he’s ever been.
Yet what has he struggled for all his life, if he cannot save his own child?
“But who decides what is an omen?” His voice is thick, the words out before he has time to consider them.
The midwife regards him, one hand supporting the infant’s torso, the other still holding its head. Still above the water.
The far door slides open, and Eisaku bursts into the room, his maid following.
“The rabbit, the rabbit,” Eisaku babbles through his tears, “Oh, Father-to-be, the rabbit…”
Fujita finds himself cradling the sobbing boy. Distracted as he is, even as his mind races, there’s a part of him that’s touched the child would come to him so easily in grief. Eisaku doesn’t know his future has changed. Fujita half-listens as Eisaku’s maid stumbles through the story of the rabbit, the poor rabbit torn from the boy’s embrace.
Fujita holds Eisaku tighter, tousles his hair, then sets the boy down.
In one swift motion he is on his feet.
“We thank you for your service.” Fujita is cordial to the midwife; the fault is not hers. He lifts his chin slightly; his head maid frowns, but nods. She kneels by the tub, hesitates for only a moment before reaching for the infant.
“You will be generously rewarded for your admirable care,” Fujita says, as both babes are carried out of the room.
“But sir…” the midwife gasps. Now it’s she who cannot seem to breathe. “The omens. You’re bringing terrible misfortune to your House.”
“Omens,” Fujita says. “Of course we honor omens.” He smooths down the seams of his kimono. “The omens are quite clear. This rabbit—you may have heard of it, a remarkable white creature—such an extraordinary omen. Obviously, it appeared as a sacrifice for my sons. We will burn incense tonight, offer many gifts to temples and shrines. A miracle indeed. That this rabbit would come to us for this very purpose, to give its life on this very day, this day my exceedingly fortunate sons were born.”
Fujita reaches down to touch his wife’s shoulder; she who seems to have no words left. Does he see relief in her eyes? Or is it fear?
He straightens again, stands tall, grasps Eisaku’s hand and leads the boy out of the room.
He hears murmurs, consternation building behind him as the servants begin to ponder his words.
He knows things will not end here, but he must not falter.
What is superstition, after all, but the words of the boldest voice in the room?
He holds Eisaku’s hand tight as they walk out into the corridor where the day is still bright and beautiful.