Excerpt from Chapter 31
The Second It All Changed
Copyright 2013 Robert C. Frink All rights reserved.
After his refreshing bath and the reassurances of his lieutenant, Shiato was able to relax a little before the dinner meeting with his father. He rolled out his futon, laid down and drifted off to sleep.
He dreamed it was a bright warm day at the end of summer, just before his return to school. He was fifteen again. His father, his father’s younger brother, Atumi, and he were eating lunch on the back deck of their house at the coast. Shiato didn’t think much of it until later, but there were no children or women, even among the servants.
Father was harshly lecturing his brother about honor, loyalty and family duty. Surprisingly, Uncle Atumi sat stone-faced, said nothing. Absolutely nothing. He wasn’t drinking and he was just picked at his food. He wasn’t being his normal, fun-loving self.
Give him a choice and on any day, Shiato would pick spending time with Atumi, rather than with his father, the tyrant. Atumi was more like Shiato wanted to be –a carefree ladies’ man who, even though he was in his late thirties, had not settled into a steady relationship. But Atumi was not perfect as Father often noted. He did not always control of his drinking or gambling. Usually at an opportunity like this, father would be chiding him about changing his ways, getting married and raising a family.
“We need heirs,” Father would say. “To help manage the family business when we are both too old to take an active part. Shiato’s not going to be able to do it all by himself. If he follows your lead, I’ll never have an heir, just a gaggle of bastard children to be shunned in public.”
When Atumi was absent, father often directed his entire wrath toward Shiato. He wanted Shiato to be a doctor, but he simply wasn’t doctor material. Shiato was into sports and girls, and try as Father might, he could dissuade Shiato from neither. But that was not Father’s tack today.
Shiato was surprised when Father looked straight into his eyes and said, “I don’t want you to turn out like my brother. He is a lost cause.”
Father said it right in front of Atumi, who didn’t even flinch, let alone raise an argument. It was a very strange lunch.
When lunch was over, Shiato asked Atumi to walk with him on the beach. Atumi only nodded in agreement and started to walk silently with him.
Shiato couldn’t remember seeing Atumi in such a rotten mood. Normally, he would try to lift Shiato’s spirits by reminding him how Father was always a prick, especially after the war. A changed man, cruel, heartless and egocentric. Shiato tried, but just couldn’t pull Atumi from his gloom.
When they returned to the beach house, several of Father’s business associates had arrived for a special meeting Shiato learned, which would take place that night.
Bored, Shiato retreated to his room to read. Late in the afternoon, Father knocked on his door.
“After dinner tonight, there will be an important meeting which you are required to attend,” he said. “Dress up and work hard to make a good impression on my associates. Your garments will be laid out for you.”
Normally, Shiato wouldn’t be allowed around such an assembly. He was astounded that Father demanded his attendance.
“Do I have to be there?” Shiato pleaded.
“It is mandatory,” Father said. “You miss it and you’ll never live it down. It is time you learned about your responsibilities, your legacy. We’re eating early. The meeting begins at seven. Be on time.”
After a somber dinner, everyone gathered in the basement recreation room. Everything had been moved away from the center of the large room to create an area big enough for a dozen people to have space to move around. Not much was said, but Shiato soon learned this was to be a special ceremony, and that it had something to do with Uncle Atumi.
Father stood before the group with Atumi, who wore a white kimono. Father’s saiko-komon, Tasuto Kazuki, whom Shiato saw more often than the others gathered for this meeting, stood beside them. Both Father and Kazuki wore formal black kimonos with bright red sashes.
Kazuki held a long wooden box which Shiato knew to be of great age. It had always had a place of prominence on a special display shelf of the butsudan, their Buddhist house altar. It resided next to a small tablet that noted his great-great grandfather’s name, along with a small tin-type photograph of a fully armored samurai, his face, an unsympathetic grimace. The box contained his ancestor’s ancient katanas, the big and the small, blades that Father was rumored to have carried throughout the big war.
Kazuki held the box high for all to see. Then he loudly proclaimed, “Here before you are the sacred daisho, blades hand-forged in the fires of our ancestors, in the days when we were proud samurai feudal lords. The time when the Hachimotto clan chose to fight tyranny in the Boshin War, before the treachery of the Meiji Restoration. We’ve been outlaws ever since and will always be.”
As the clan boss, Father then continued, “As oyabun, I implore you remember your oath. We are bound by strict codes of conduct, the bushido way that holds above all else honor and loyalty. One has strayed from the path. Today we must renew our commitment to these values or, like the single stick, we will be destroyed by one weak man. Together, as many sticks bound in the common cause, we cannot be broken.”
Then Atumi knelt before Father. “Shame has descended upon our house, the clan of Hachimotto, and I have brought it,” Atumi said with more emotion than Shiato had ever heard from him. “I am ready. I am ready for the stomach-cutting ceremony, seppuku. I betrayed our clan to further my own greed. I have betrayed the honor entrusted in me and misspent my loyalty to the oyabun and to the ninkyō dantai.”
Atumi took a deep breath and looked at Kazuki, “Saiko-komon, give me the short blade, the o-wakizashi of our ancestors, that I may purge our clan of this shame.”
Kazuki handed the box to Father, who opened it and held the box out with both hands.
Father said, “I give to you Saiko-komon, the blades of the ancient ones.”
Kazuki removed the o-wakizashi from the box and with two hands offered it to Atumi.
“When I have moved the o-wakizashi’s blade from the left to the right,” Atumi said as he struggled for control, “I implore my oyabun to act as my kaishakunin, my second, to make the final cut to deliver me and our clan from shame.”
Father nodded affirmative and handed the open box back to Kazuki. Father then removed the remaining katana and unsheathed it. The metal rang above the still air. He then took the long blade, with two hands and stepped behind Atumi’s left side.
Atumi opened his kimono to the waist, wrapped a thick cotton cloth around the short blade, then took the blade of the o-wakizashi in both hands. He plunged the blade into his abdomen and began to slice to the right when Shiato glanced up at his Father.
For a second, he thought he saw a glint of sadness in his Father’s eyes, but the precise swing of the katana’s blade distracted him as it sliced cleanly the neck of his uncle.
Father picked up Atumi’s head by the hair and said to everyone, while he looked directly at Shiato, “See this, and know the price of betrayal, the cost of shame upon the family.”
Startled, Shiato awoke.
He jumped up off the futon, in a panic, sweat dripping from his head and neck. He stood, momentarily disoriented. As the room came into focus, he realized, there was no severed head, no menacing Father. He looked at his watch. Fortunately there was still time to shower.
So much for relaxed confidence before dinner with the General, he thought as he got in the shower.
Shiato dressed in his suit, which had been cleaned and pressed during the afternoon. He was early for the dinner. As he approached the door, a young woman in a kimono bowed, then knelt in front of the door and slowly opened it. He removed his slippers and entered the room.
Father was already at the low table, sitting stiff as a board. He looked as unyielding as ever. He was seated facing the door, the position that asserted his station and power over Shiato. Father was dressed immaculately in what Shiato was sure was a custom-made yukata of the finest materials.
Shiato’s heart sank and his confidence retreated out the sliding door before it whooshed closed behind him. The music of the geishas to his right barely registered in his brain.
He bowed deeply. “Pleased to see you, honored Father,” he said as he tried to steady his voice.
Father merely nodded and said, “Likewise, only son.”
Instantly Shiato’s mind returned to the unpleasant dream that ended his nap. Father had become the personification of everything bad – all that is evil– after that traumatic day. The day that was supposed to remind him of his responsibility, his heritage –maybe it was more than he was capable of fulfilling– brought only dread and horror. Maintaining honor at the cost of his life as Atumi had? Shiato was not sure that high need could be met. Could he ever live up to his Father’s grand expectations? He had significant doubts.
Shiato sat, anxious to eat, anything to distract him from his discomfort. The kaiseki ryori, the traditional multi-course repast was one of Father’s favorite indulgences. For Shiato, it was a minor consolation in the face of this meeting he would give anything to avoid.
True to form, Father showed no emotion as the meal progressed, no hint that he even recognized Shiato’s presence. Were it not for the pleasant singing and music of the geishas, Shiato would not have been able to endure the tension building in him. He worried. Had he misread the situation? Was there some other business mishap he had overlooked?
They were just finishing the shokuji, the last round of food before dessert, when the geishas stopped playing and gracefully exited the room. As the door slid closed, the silence in the room descended like a heavy wet wool blanket thrown on top of him. Shiato felt like he was being smothered.
Then, for the first time since Shiato entered the room, Father looked directly into his eyes. Father’s right hand entered his yukata and emerged with an envelope which he placed on the table and with two fingers slid across to him.
Shiato’s brain screamed inside. What horror awaited his attention? Was Father finally calling him out, playing the last card of his dissatisfaction with his only heir?
Shiato picked up the envelope and opened it.
Inside was a single photograph of Suzy walking out of the Seattle General Hospital, dressed in a nursing uniform that clearly showed she was very pregnant.
It was all he could do not to throw up.