“The Hero” marks Day 16 for the 33-day marathon of Shigematsu Kiyoshi’s work aptly titled, Thousand Years of Dreams, which chronicles through short stories disguised as dream-memories of the eternal warrior Kaim in the game Lost Odyssey. This particular dream didn’t affect as much when I first experienced it as it unfolded during the game, but in the years since it’s grown on me.
This remembered dream-memory of Kaim’s posits the question of what makes a hero. We all see what the hero looks like as thrust upon us by the government, the press and the media, but what lies beneath the gloss, glamour and propaganda. I won’t say that these heroes don’t deserve everything they get and awarded to them, but rarely do we ever know the real person behind the veneer.
This dream-memory shows us that what made these men and women who fight for us turn into heroes was doing the very things we can’t see ourselves ever doing. Heroes on the battlefield and in war become heroes because they must kill the enemy in order to protect their buddies and themselves. Heroes become what they are because they wade through blood and death and come out the other side. What we never learn is how becoming heroes have changed them dramatically and forever.
It’s why heroes are made and not born. We can’t all be heroes and that’s because we cannot make the necessary sacrifice to do what must be done even if it means doing the unthinkable to another human being and the next and the next until there’s no more.
The hero was home from the war.
He had performed gallantly on the battlefield, advanced to the rank of general, and made a triumphal entry into the village of his birth.
The villagers welcomed him with a festive celebration. The grown-ups were treated to drinks beginning in the afternoon, and the children received sweet confections. The cattle and sheep in the pastures that supported the villagers’ livelihood, whether because they were excited by the unusual commotion or were welcoming the hero in their own way, sent especially shrill cries reverberating into the blue summer sky.
“General, you are the pride of our village!”
Obviously full of pride himself, the head of the village thrust out his chest as he delivered his congratulatory address in the welcoming ceremony. “To think that the foremost hero in the army came from this tiny village is so incredibly exhilarating and gratifying. I am sure our ancestors are overjoyed as well!” The throng crammed into the village square burst forth with cheers and applause.
“According to the official figures released by the army the other day, General, you brought down at least two thousand enemy soldiers with your own hand.”
A thunderous roar shook the square.
“Come to think of it, the population of this village is less than a thousand. This means, Sir, that you managed to bury more than two of these villages’ worth on your own. How fortunate for us that you were not one of the enemy! If by any chance there had been a warrior of your caliber on their side, we’d be resting in the hilltop graveyard by now!”
A few of the women frowned momentarily at this remark, but the men, full of liquor, responded with and explosive laugh.
Sitting stage center, the general lightly stroked his dignified beard. No one present knew that this was his habit whenever he was perplexed. When he left his village to join the army, he was just and ordinary soldier a long way from growing a beard.
“General, you are truly the savior of our army and, indeed, of our entire nation. I understand you will be leaving for another battle tomorrow, but we all hope that you thoroughly enjoy yourself on this rare visit to your birthplace!”
The village chief ended his greetings and withdrew to the wings, whereupon the village’s number one entertainer bounded onto the stage in the most comical way he could manage.
“Dear General!” he cried, runing over to where the great man was seated and going down on his knees, “Oh, hear my plea!”
The general looked at him uncertainly.
“is there any possibility that you would lend me the sword at your side, if only for a moment?”
Perplexed though he was by all this, the general, impelled by the audience’s applause and cheers, handed the man his tasseled and jewel-encrusted sword.
The man bowed deeply as the sword entered his outstretched hands and again he cried, “My gratitude knows no bounds!” Pretending to stagger under the weight of the sword, he came to the front edge of the stage and held the weapon aloft.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, I will re-enact the event that raised our dear General’s fame to the heights in a single bound–When he hacked eighteen of the enemy into little teeny tiny bits!”
The audience cheered wildly, and the man, with exaggerated movements and commentary, swung the sword in a great arc. The audience knew exactly what he was doing. The general had not only made a name for himself for his strategic prowess but was also widely acclaimed as a warrior on the battlefield. He did not rely solely on his weapons but, in the end, leveled his opponents with his sheer physical strength. This, too, was a matter of the utmost pride for the villagers.
“Here we go! One man down, two men down, flip the sword, three men down, fourth man slashed diagonally right through the shoulder, fifth man’s head goes flying. Oof! Then three at once–sixth, seventh, and eighth man, what a bother! I’ll just skewer you like this…”
The man thrust the sword though three imaginary opponents and the crowd went wild.
The general, too, broke a smile and applauded.
When he was through clapping, though, he stroked his beard again.
“I’m sure you can understand how I felt at the time, sitting up there on that stage,” the old general says to Kaim before taking a sip of water from his leather pouch.
His magnificent beard is completely white, so distant are the past events he is recounting.
Kaim nods in silence, and the general continues, as if mulling over every word, “The more you know about war, the more likely you feel that way.”
“I’m sure the villagers meant well. They just wanted to pay homage to their hometown hero.”
“No, of course. They weren’t being the least bit malicious. My village has the nicest people in the world, which is exactly why I found the whole thing so painful. I couldn’t stand it after a while.”
Hacking eighteen men to bits–
The deeds of a hero are related in numbers.
Surely the man who playfully swung the general’s sword on stage that day could never have imagined the ones who lost their lives on the battlefield: the agonized expressions on their faces, the curse in their eyes as they stared into nothingness.
“But that’s all right, too. People who live peaceful lives don’t have to know about such things. That’s what people like us are for: to keep their lives far away from the battlefields. Don’t you agree? Thanks to us and our killing of enemies, the people we’re supposed to protect don’t have to know anything about the bloodiness of war.
Unless you believe that, what’s the point of killing each other?”
Kaim says nothing in reply. Without either affirming or negating the old general’s words, he stars vaguely at the general’s troops.
“What’d you say your name is? Kaim? I suppose you’ve killed more enemies soldiers than you can begin to count.”
“There is no way I could count them all.”
“I thought so. You have a flawless build, the kind that can only be tempered on the battlefield. Only a man who has survived one battle after another can carry himself they way you do with complete naturalness.”
How does a man like you find himself driving a horse cart over a mountain pass?
Kaim is ready to leave without answering if the old man asks him such a question.
But the general inquires no further into Kaim’s background. Instead, there is a sense of relief in the smile he bestows on the sight of Kaim resting his horses at the pass.
“I was sixteen the first time I went into battle. After that, I just kept running from one fight to another until I made it all the way to general. At first, I remembered the faces of the men I crossed swords with and killed. Even if you don’t try to remember them, they get carved into your memory. I had terrible nightmares. And try as I might, I could never seem to wash off the stench of the blood that splashed on my face and hands. That was a hallucination, of course, but it got so bad once that I spent a whole night in a river trying to wash myself off.”
The general paused a moment to think about his story, then went on,
“But after a while you get used to it. You get used to fighting and killing over and over again. Your body, and your mind, and your heart: you just get used to it. That’s how people are. So I stopped having nightmares. I killed all the enemy soldiers I could lay my hands on, and I forgot every one of their faces. It’s the same for you now, too, Kaim, isn’t it?”
“It’s like a curse. If you don’t get used to it, your heart breaks. On the other hand, if you don’t get used to it, your heart probably ends up breaking someplace deeper down.”
The general casts a fond glance toward his resting troops. Then, slowly shifting his gaze far down to the foot of the mountain, he says, “so that’s what it was like for me back then, when I returned to my birthplace in triumph.”
For the final event in the welcoming ceremonies, several children mounted the stage.
“And now, in honor of our hero, the children will present to the General a floral wreath more marvelous than the greatest medal there ever was!”
The audience went wild again.
When the children put the wreath on his neck, the general favored them with a warm smile–the first honest smile from the heart that he had managed since climbing onto the stage.
“And finally, as a special treat for the General, who has been galloping from one battlefield to the next from his native place, the children’s chosen representative will read his own original composition spelling out the joys of the peaceful life of the village.”
With a look of grim intensity, a small boy barely old enough to go to school unfolded his composition and, gripping it in two hands, begin to read aloud from it, straining to make himself heard.
“First I’m going to write about one of the nicest things that happened to me. At my house, we have a pasture with lots of cows and sheep. One cow had a baby two days ago. I helped my daddy by stroking the cow’s back with a handful of straw while she was having the baby. That makes the cow warm up so it’s easier for her to give birth. The baby was born just before the sun came up. It was a tiny baby, but it could already stand on its own legs. A baby! Wow! I’m going to take care of this baby until it gets big. Dear little calf, hurry and grow up, okay?”
The general had tears in his eyes.
“Now I’m going to write about one of the saddest things that happened to me. That was when my Grandma got sick and died. She was such a nice Grandma. I know her sickness made her feel bad, but she was always smiling when she died. I watched her face the whole time because I knew I wouldn’t be able to see her anymore and I wanted to remember her even after I grow up. She just kept smiling and smiling for me right to the very end. That’s why she is always smiling when I think of her. Are you looking down from the sky, Grandma? I will never forget you as long as I live!”
Tears were streaming down the general’s face.
When the ceremony ended, the general left his village and headed for the town where army headquarters were located.
There, he wrote a long letter to the king, and he gave his sword to his most trusted lieutenant.
The general had decided to retire.
“This was a big surprise to me as it was to anybody. But when I heard that little boy’s essay, it occurred to me: what makes us really human is to celebrate each life that comes into the world and morn each life that is lost. I didn’t need medals anymore. I didn’t need the honor of being allowed into the presence of His Majesty anymore.
I wanted to be a real human being again.
As a result, overnight I went from being the village hero to being reviled as a traitor.”
The general turns to face Kaim and asks, “So, are you going to mock me as a coward who ran away fron the battlefield, or blame me for being a deserter who betrayed his own patriotism?”
Kaim turns a gentle smile on the old man.
“Neither,” he says. “As a soldier, you made the wrong decision, but as a human being you made the right one.”
The general strokes his white beard and says, “My habit has changed, too. Nowadays, I find myself stroking by beard when I’m embarrassed.”
The two men look at each other and smile.
“Okay, back to work,” says the general, standing with a grunt.
He calls out to his troops, “Alright, men, it’s all downhill from here. Let’s give it one last push and get back to the village before sunset.”
The “troops” under the general’s command consist of thirty sheep, not one of whom is likely to take a person’s life.
“Tell me, Kaim, are you planning to go back into battle at some point?”
“I don’t really know,” he replies.
“I’m content with herding sheep for now,” the general says.
“I don’t have the least regret for the decision I made that day. It would make me happy to think this could be a king of lesson for you.”
With this parting remark, the general turns away from Kaim and begins walking.
The sheep amble along after him in newly reformed ranks.
Standing at attention, the general raises his right arm and waves his troops on.
The command he had once delivered to tens of thousands of men in the battlefield now echoes pleasantly among the mountains of his native village.