Thousand Years of Dreams Day 33: An Old Soldier’s Legacy


Well, we’ve finally reached the end of the 33-day marathon which saw 32 dream-memories penned by renowned Japanese author Shigematsu Kiyoshi for the rpg title Lost Odyssey. For Day 33 (despite what the video may say it’s the 33rd dream and not 32nd) we have quite an appropriate memory from Kaim, the immortal warrior, who has seen 1000-plus years of war and experiences both good and bad. “An Old Soldier’s Legacy” speaks very much to the times we’re having now.

The memory ends this series on a down note. We see through Kaim’s reminiscing eyes how war creates a cycle of hate that never seems to end. Victor will punish the defeated. The defeated will rise up generations later to bring down their oppressors and begin the cycle of hate and violence anew.

It’s always the young men who have seen war strip them of their humanity and the men who led from safety who never seem to get the lesson needed to finally bring peace after years of war. It’s always the old soldier’s who have survived countless battles and have learned the lesson of compassion for one’s enemies who know how to stop the cycle. But in the end no one ever listens to these old warriors who only want peace.

As we look at the wars happening now across the globe are we just sowing the seeds for future generations who will rise up and do the same to their enemies or will the leaders and young men now fighting learn the lesson the old soldiers before them have learned through blood and tears: when the fighting ends let peace rule and not vengeance.

An Old Soldier’s Legacy

Kaim spent the entire summer surrounded by a fence that towered over him.

He was trapped in a prisoner of war camp.

It was a terrible mistake – not his but the dimwitted, cowardly commander’s. Kaim was a mercenary attached to the man’s regiment. They were invading the enemy’s main port city when the officer miscalculated at the end and the unit’s line of retreat was cut off. While the troops were prepared for an all-or-nothing charge, the commander almost casually opted for surrender.

“Don’t worry,” he had said to his men before they were locked up.

“Whatever happens now, the ultimate victory in this war will be ours. Instead of making a stand and dying for nothing, we’ll be much better off if we just quietly let them take us as prisoners of war. We’ll be liberated right away in any case.”

This made perfect sense.

But the officer completely misread the feelings of an enemy on the brink of defeat.

Having survived hundreds of battles, Kaim knew better than anyone how people felt towards prisoners of war after the hated enemy had taken the lives of their friends and loved ones and torched their hometowns.

To the members of his platoon at least, as they were preparing to enter the camp, he whispered,

“You’d better forget about any rosy pictures. This could be worse than the battlefield.”

His words proved all too accurate.

Life in the POW camp was bitterly harsh. Day after day, the men were forced to do backbreaking labor on a diet of scraps. The sick and injured went untreated and were not even allowed to rest. To collapse on the job was to die. Indeed, several of the prisoners died not by collapsing on the job but from brutal beatings for minor infractions.

Everyone with access to the camp – both the soldiers assigned to guard duty and ordinary citizens with business there – looked upon the prisoners with hatred in their eyes. Some guards would wave swords at them and boast, “I can kill you bastards any time I like,” and certain officers slaughtered one prisoner after another, disguising the killings as accidents.

Even as they tormented the prisoners, such men were suffering the deaths of their families and friends in the war, and spending their days in fear of the coming invasion. The camp was a place ruled by hatred and revenge, but also a place shrouded in uncertainty and fear of the day when the captives would become their captors. This tense, complicated atmosphere ate away at the spirits of all, friend and foe alike.

The horror of war lay not only in the mutual killing of enemies clashing on the battlefield but even more so in places such as this that were far from the front lines.

Kaim knew this with every bone in his body.

A month passed after the platoon entered the POW camp.

The enemy troops were thoroughly exhausted.

The fall of the capital was said to be imminent.

In spite or because of that, life in the camp was worse than ever.

The tasks assigned the prisoners were even crueler than before, and their diet, which was meager enough to begin with, fell below the level needed to sustain life.

The military guards bullied the prisoners as if for their own amusement, wounding them, and mistreating them with fatal consequences. All kinds of civilians did their part, too, hurling human waste over the fence into the camp. And even if secret stashes of food might be left for them, none of the prisoners dared eat them for fear they might be poisoned.

Hatred climbed to unseen heights.

To one prisoner who moaned “Why are you doing this to us?”

A guard spat out the answer, “It’s just what your country is doing to us.”

And it was true.

All the young men of the enemy country were being sent into battle, where most of them were being killed. Whole towns had been burned down and transformed into rubble.

While the soldiers assigned to guard duty knew that defeat in the war itself was certain, they continued to be victors where the POWs were concerned.

And while the captured soldiers believed in the victory of their fatherland and waited for the day when their comrades would resuce them, they continued to be vanquished among victors.

The moans of the POWs could be heard throughout the camp:

“When is the war going to end?”

“The war doesn’t have to end. Just let them get us out of here!”

“Have we been abandoned by the fatherland?”

Kaim kept offering the same advice to them again and again:

“Be patient,” he would say, “Don’t give up hope.”

Kaim knew everything there was to know about war, and so he realized what was happening now. The fatherland’s supreme commanders were trying to bring down the capital first and leaving the fall of this military port city for later. The POWs had, in fact, been abandoned.

The commander in chief would no doubts say, “For the sake of a great victory, we cannot let ourselves be concerned by a small set back.”

And he would be right.

But precisely because he would be right, Kaim could not convey this to the prisoners, who firmly believed that their side was trying their best to rescue them.

One POW after another made plans to escape, and for every one of those there was an informant who exposed his plan to the guards.

Both types of prisoner had the same thing in mind: to save himself alone. No one could be trusted. THere were even some “informants” who made up phony escape stories about perfectly innocent men just to put themselves in a little better position with the guards. The only thing awaiting such traitors when the war finally ended would be the revenge of their comrades. As much as they understood this, all they could do was ingratiate themselves with the guards so as to secure their momentary safety.

The fence was not the only thing surrounding the POWs. It was not just their bodies but their minds that had been taken captive. In addition to the ones who died from illness and injury were increasing numbers of those who ended their own lives after a period of mental suffering.

Be patient.

Don’t give up hope.

Kaim’s word gradually ceased to make an impression on anyone.

After the men had been prisoners of war for two months, a new guard took charge of Kaim’s barrack.

In place of the young warrior who had been guarding them came an old soldier.

His name was Jemii.

When he introduced himself to the men, he remarked with a grim smile,

“Things must be getting pretty desperate if they’re calling up an old goat like me.”

The young guard had been sent to the front lines. This probably meant that the battle for the capital had entered its final phase.

“I tell you, this war is almost over. In another month, you young fellows will be on the other side of the fence, and we’ll be locked in here. Our positions will be completely reversed.”

Jemii needed no prompting from the POWs, and his vocie contained none of the hate-filled agitation of the young guard’s.

“All you fellows have to do is hang in there a little longer, be patient, and not give up hope.”

His words were almost identical to Kaim’s, which meant that Jemii, like Kaim, had experienced many a battle over the years.

“We may be in different positions, but deep down we’re the same. You men are unarmed prisoners, and we’ll be under your control as soon as you come to occupy the country. I’m what you will be tomorrow, and you’re what I will be tomorrow. I don’t know how long we’re going to go on like this, but if you stop and think about it, isn’t it stupid for us to keep hating each other and snarling at each other? Let’s at least try to get along.”

He twisted his wrinkled face into a big grin and laughed aloud.

His smile deeply affect the mentally and physically exhausted men.

Before they knew it, they were smiling, too. THis was the first carefree smile that any of them had managed since their capture, or, rather, since their time on the battlefield.

Jemii’s kindness was not limited to words. Of course, the change of a single guard was not enough to substantially improve the prisoners’ treatment. The hard labor and meager food were the same as before. But Jemii would speak to them with real feeling.

“Sorry for working you so hard, but there aren’t any young men left in this town to do the muscle work. We’re not making you do these jobs to punish or discipline you but because the town needs your help with these constructing projects.”

“I’m sorry we can’t give you anything decent to eat. I really am. But everybody outside the fence is starving, too. We’re all in this together, so try to put up with it.”

Jemii would try to order somewhat easier jobs for prisoners who had taken ill, and he would sneak them extra food. THat is the kind of guard he was.

The prisoners started calling him “Uncle Jemii,” and would even joke around with him sometimes.

“We’d be way better off if the other guards were like you, Uncle Jemii,”
said one prisoner, to which Jemii nodded sadly.

“I’ll tell you what, Uncle Jemii,” said another prisoner. “If I had known that there were people like you in this country, I never would have volunteered. I’m not forgetting my place as a POW, but let me shake your hand once.”

Jemii allowed himself the faintest of smiles at this and gave the man his hand.

“You know something, Kaim…” Jemii said, sitting down beside Kaim during a break in the heavy lifting.

It was a clear, beautiful day, but the sunlight pouring down on them had lost its midsummer glare. The season was shifting to autumn.

“I’d say you’re a little different from these other young prisoners.”

“Am I?”

“I know you’ve seen your share of battles. I can smell it on you.”

Kaim’s only reply to Jemii was a strained smile. Jemii seemed to have known what Kaim’s response to his remark would be, and he wore the same kind of smile as he carried on the conversation.

“Why haven’t you escaped?” It would be easy for a man like you to break through the flimsy security they have here.”

“You give me too much credit.”

“You could make it by yourself, but taking everybody with you would be tough. Is that why you stayed?”

Kaim gave him another strained smile, saying nothing.

Jemii was right. If he decided to escape on his own, it would be easy for him to climb over the fence. If, however, he manged to gain his freedom, the prisoners he left behind would be punished or, at the very least, would have to live with increasingly harsh security measures. The young soldiers abandoned in the camp would feel only despair.

If he was going to escape, it would have to mean getting everyone over the fence. Most of the others, however, were so wasted away that they were beginning to lose even the strength to go on living. Men like that could only be a drag on his own flight to freedom.

“You’re a kind-hearted fellow, aren’t you?” Jemii said.

“And you’re a smart one, too, I’ll bet.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Any soldier with as much experience as you has already seen the handwriting on the wall. The war is over. Another three days, maybe a week, and our side is going to announce a total surrender. Right now, we’re just making our last stand out of sheer stubbornness. The second the war ends, you prisoners will go free, and we’ll take your place.”

“Yes. And?”

“It’ll just be a little longer. Really, all you have to do is hold on a little longer. You must know that as well as I do. So you’re probably not even thinking of making the effort to escape.”

When Kaim nodded, Jemii smiled and said, “That’s fine. I’m just as fed up as you are with all the pointless fighting and hatred.”

He looked up at the autumn sky, his profile marked by a number of deep wrinkles. On closer inspection, Kaim realized that some of those wrinkles were scars left by sword cuts.

“Let me tell you something, Kaim.”

“All right.”

“Our country doesn’t have the strength left to make it through another hard winter. I knew that when summer was still here.”

“I see…”

“I just wish we had given up sooner. Then there wouldn’t have been so many young men killed in battle, and so many towns burned.”

Jemii released a deep sigh and added, “When this war is over, we’re going to have to do whatever your country tells us to do. We can’t complain if we’re enslaved or tortured to death by the young men who are now our prisoners of war.”

Kaim could not assure him that would never happen.

As a mercenary, he would just go off seeking new employment when this war ended, but this was not true of the other prisoners of war. As the conquerors, they would now have peace. They would return to the lives they led before. But how many among them would be able to treat the vanquished people with kindness and respect?

“I think you’ll know what I mean, Kaim, when I say you can be as cruel as you like to us old folks when the fighting ends, but please, I’m begging you, be decent to the young men and to the women and to the children. Don’t do anything to them that will make them hate your country. Otherwise, there’ll just be another war sometime in the future. Ten years, twenty years, thirty years, maybe even a hundred years from now. I don’t want any more of this. Countries fighting each other, people hating each other…”

It happened that very moment.

The violent ringing of a bell began to echo throughout the camp. It was the bell in the watchtower, signaling an emergency meeting of the guards.

“Oh, well, gotta go,” Jemii said, standing up. “Don’t bother going back to work right away. Tell the other fellows everybody can have a little break.”

He took a few steps before turning to say to Kaim with a smile, “You know, if we weren’t enemies, I would’ve liked to have a drink with you sometime.”

That was the last Kaim saw of Jemii as a guard.

The sun was overhead when Jemii left, but he did not come back even after it had begun sinking in the west.

The next time someone came into the enclosure it was to the cheers of the POWs welcoming the arrival of their countrymen.

“You’re going to be all right now, men! The war is over!
It’s a huge victory for our side!”

Jemii’s country had agreed to a total surrender.

The guards assembled in the tower were stripped of their weapons, and anyone who resisted was killed on the spot.

“Get a move on there! Hurry up!”

The soldiers who, until a short time ago, had ruled the camp were herded into the enclosure with whips and under the threat of drawn swords.

The POWs, who until only moments ago had been under their rule, now lined up to stare at their former guards, and before anyone knew it, the guards were being cursed and stoned.

Hands tied, the soldiers could not ward off the stones, and before long they were drenched in blood.

Jemii was among them.

He started at Kaim, blood gushing from his forehead. His eyes showed no hatred or resentment. He simply gave Kaim a little nod, looking straight at him as if to say, “Remember what I asked you to do.”

Kaim shouted to the men surrounding these new prisoners,

“Stop it! Stop it! They’ve surrendered! Leave them alone!”

But, liberated from the fear of death and from days of humiliation, his young comrades, wild-eyed and screaming like animals, went on stoning their former guards.

“Can’t you see who this is? It’s Uncle Jemii! Stop it!”

One of the soldiers gave him a contemptuous snort and all but spit out the words, “The old bastard was just sucking up to us for when our side won.”

Another soldier – the young man who had asked to shake Jemii’s hand that day – shouted, “He might act like a good guy, but an enemy’s an enemy! And besides, he’s just some old geezer from a country we pounded into the dirt.” He threw another stone at Jemii.

Kaim’s shouts did no good. He started grabbing hands that were readying to hurl stones and smashing people in the face, but no one would listen to him.

The commander of the troops that had galloped to the rescue just grinned and said, “Good! Good! Get it out of your system!” and he handed swords to the unarmed men.

“Kill them all, and raise some victory cries while you’re at it! Think of the humilation you endured as prisoners. Now’s the time to get even!”

“No, stop it!” Kaim shouted. “The war is over!”

“Wait, I know you. You’re a mercenary.

You’re just spouting a lot of nonsense. A few good sword thrusts could shut that mouth of yours!”

The commander’s aides took this as a signal to surround Kaim.

“Don’t waste your time on him, men! Warriors of our beloved fatherland! Kill these soldiers first, and then we can attack the town. Set fires! Take the women! We won this war! This town, this country, everything belongs to us now!”

The commander laughed aloud, but in the next moment, his smile turned into a grimace. His aides were falling to the ground. Kaim had grabbed a sword from one of them, and now it flashed in his hand.

“Traitor! Somebody take him down!”

Kaim swung around and started for Jemii.

But it was too late.

The soldiers were already slashing wildly at the former guards, who had no means to defend themselves.

Standing amid the hellish scene of human butchery, Kaim saw it happen.

The old soldier, who had been kind because he knew all too well the link between war and hatred, fell to the ground without uttering a word, a hateful blade thrust into his back.

Kaim made a break for the camp gate.

He ran for all he was worth, a soundless roar reverberating inside him.

Why did people have to hate each other so?

Why did people have to fight each other so?

And why was it impossible for people to stop fighting and stop hating?

He did not know the answers to these questions.

Saddened and frustrated by his own incomprehension, Kaim ran at full speed through the rubble of the town.

A hundred years pass by.

“This is it, Kaim,” the commander says with a smile. “I am enormously grateful for the magnificent job you’ve done. You can name your own reward when this war is over.”

The last great offensive is about to begin.

This should bring the war to a close.

It has taken a hundred years.

After all these long, long years as a vassal state, the country that lost the war the year Kaim was a prisoner has raised its banner against the ruling power under which it endured such suffering in the last war.

The defeated country has spent a hundred years nurturing its hatred for the ruling power, passing the hatred down from parent to child to grandchild. The country that won the war a hundred years ago was too filled with a ruler’s arrogance and insensitivity to notice what was happening. The only things that it has handed down from parent to child to grandchild are the scorn and contempt for the “inferior country” under its sway.

This war ends with almost disappointing ease.

The results are the exact opposite of the war a hundred years earlier.

No one knows on which side the goddess of victory will smile if yet another war occurs a hundred years from now.

“All right, Kaim, name your reward.”

Kaim answers the commander’s question softly: “I don’t need a thing.”

“Why not? It’s true that you’re a mercenary, but you far outdid the regular troops. Our country wants to show its appreciation for your efforts.”

“If that’s how you really feel, I’d like you to promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Don’t make your enemy hate you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about treating the people of the defeated country with kindness and respect.”

A shocked expression on his face, the commander laughs and says,
“Aren’t you the softhearted one!”

Kaim, however, is deadly serious.

“This is the legacy an old man from your own country left me a hundred years ago.”

“Enough,” says the commander, still looking shocked. “Dismissed.”

Kaim himself has no hope that Jemii’s legacy will be fulfilled. The hundred-year journey he has taken since that fateful day in the camp has shown him only the selfishness and stupidity of the human race. It will be the same from here on out as well. Indeed, nothing has changed since long before he met Jemii.

And yet.

Back at his post, Kaim grips his sword and holds his breath.

It will change someday.

They will see someday.

I want to believe that.

Unless I believe it, I can’t go on with my endless journey.

You know what I mean, don’t you, Uncle Jemii?

Eyes closed, he can see Jemii’s face smiling sadly.

The order goes out to the entire assembled force: “Charge!”

Within the rising clouds of dust, Kaim grips his sword and starts to run.

 

Thousand Years of Dreams Day 32: Samii the Storyteller


 

 

 

We’re now down to the final two dream-memories on what has been the 33-day marathon. This penultimate entry is called “Samii the Storyteller” and this one makes a strong statement about what Churchill called the one of the first casualties of war: The truth.

War will always remain the main and perfect calling for man. It’s what we’re best whether we care to admit it or not. Cormac McCarthy said it best:

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way is was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Does this mean we’ll never stop ourselves from this cycle? The answer to that will always lie on how those who never see the battlefield and never fight the wars are told how it truly is. War has always been chronicled for the masses as something glorious. Something righteous and for the greater good of all when it’s never so simple as that. Yes, sometimes wars have to be fought and people will have to die, but how those in power keep the masses fired up is why the truth is always the first casualty of war.

Civilians will always be the fuel which drive wars. No matter how powerful a government is or how great an army can be on the battlefield they both cannot continue to do so without the consent of the very public they govern and protect. Dictator and autocrats know this and why they spin the truth of what war truly is into lies to keep them from learning the honest and brutal truth. Democracies and republics will always walk a fine line of how to tell the truth to it’s people. Give enough of the truth, but never so much that morale flags.

There will always be a need for people such as Samii the Storyteller, but whether it’s the Samii who starts the dream-memory or the one who finishes it will depend on the listener.

Samii the Storyteller

Samii was an outstanding storyteller, one of the best official reciters of the national history there had ever been.

And he was far and away the most popular of the storytellers in the country’s army.

Samii was not a soldier himself, but he always moved with the troops, and always with the units on the most hotly contest battle lines.

Whenever a battle ended and Samii came back to town, his head was filled with countless stories – stories of soldiers who had performed heroic deeds on the battlefield, stories of soldiers who had faced the enemy gallantly, stories of soldiers who had saved their buddies, stories of soldiers who had used their bodies as shields to protect their unit’s position., stories of daring soldiers who had broken into the enemy camp single-handedly, stories of soldiers who had fought fairly to the end against the most devious of enemies.

It was Samii’s job as a storyteller to depict events on the battlefield for the people of the town.

That year, Kaim was always by his side It was Kaim’s mission, as a particularly capable mercenary, to accompany Samii to the front and make sure that nothing happened to this nationally beloved storyteller.

Samii liked Kaim from the moment they teamed up.

Not only did they appear to be about the same age, but with the eye of an outstanding storyteller, Samii was able to perceive the long past – the too long past – that this quiet warrior carried with him.

Samii said, “I could tell the minute I saw you that you had more military experience than any of the others in the regular army. Your head is packed with even more battlefield stories than mine.

Am I right? The only difference between you and me is that you can’t put yours into words as well as I can. Am I right?”

Samii spoke in the professional reciter’s ringing, rhythmic tones.

“Come on Kaim, tell me something. I don’t care if it’s a scrap of a scrap. Just give me a hint of something you’ve seen on the battlefield, and leave the rest to me. I’ll turn it into a terrific story.”

This was probably true, Kaim thought.

If Kaim were to put himself in Samii’s hands, his never-ending life would surely be extolled in the form of a never-ending narrative poem.

And this was precisely why Kaim merely shook his head in silence.

The townspeople knew nothing of the actual battlefield – how soldiers fought on the front, how they killed their enemies, or how they themselves died in action. The people could only imagine these things upon hearing them celebrated in Samii’s stories.

Conversely, the soldiers fighting on the front had no way of knowing how their stories were being told in the town.

The only ones who knew both sides were Samii himself and his bodyguard Kaim, who clung to him like a shadow.

As soon as he returned from the battlefield to the town, without even pausing to catch his breath, Samii would head directly to the square in front of the castle gate. The people would be waiting for him there – not just the residents of the capital where the castle was located but many who had traveled for days from distant villages to get there.

They were hungering for his stories. They wanted to know how their husbands and sons and fathers and lovers and friends had fought and died on the battlefield.

For these people, Samii would mount the stage in the square and recount the drama of the battlefield in ringing tones, accompanying his stories with gestures and flourishes and, sometimes, even tears.

Samii’s stories of the battlefield, however, were by no means composed of unadorned fact. He beautified many parts.

He cleverly concealed elements that could be embarassing to the army.

And he acted out and embellished his stories in ways that were sure to set his listeners’ hearts to throbbing.

If a soldier happened to do something that was relatively helpful to his unit, in Samii’s hands it would be transformed into an amazing military exploit.

But that was just the normal level of exaggeration he introduced into his stories. At times, a soldier killed after a panicked escape from an enemy attack would be turned into a gallant warrior who died bravely without yielding an inch of soil.

A man who lost his life to a raging epidemic would be described as having met a glorious end after challenging an enemy general in hand to hand combat.

Even a soldier who had lost his mind out of sheer terror and breathed his last after a period of hallucinating, in Samii’s hands, could be refashioned into a hero who gave his life in exchange for turning the tide of battle.

In other words, Samii’s stories were almost all lies.

It could be said that he was deceiving the people.

But that was the mission of the storyteller.

In the square stood a number of soldiers carrying swords.

If Samii ever said anything that ran counter to the intentions of the military, they would have immediately arrested him, made it impossible for him ever to speak again by cutting his tongue out with a hot iron poker, and imprisoned him for whatever remained of his life.

Kaim knew well enough that Samii’s duty as a national reciter was to whip up the people’s fighting spirit.

While accomplishing that, his stories also served to comfort those who had lost their friends and family members in battle.

People would often ask Samii, “What was it like when my son died?” or “How was my boyfriend on the battlefield?” or “How about my father?”

Samii would ask the soldier’s name, answer, “Oh, him, yes, I remember him well.” and speak movingly of the death of a nameless soldier of whom he had no recollection whatever.

Before long, from here and there amid the throng crammed into every corner of the square, would come the sound of sobbing. These were not tears of sorrow, however. Rather, they were the hot tears of pride and gratitude for soldiers who had died fighting for the fatherland, tears of anger toward the enemy troops, tears filled with a determination to win this war at all costs, come what may, in the name of justice.

“And what’s wrong with that?” Samii would say in affirmation.

“The families of soldiers killed in action have grieved enough already from hearing the news that their loved ones have died. After that, it’s just a matter of how much meaning they can find in the person’s death, how much pride they can feel at the way it happened.

Am I right? Nobody wants to believe his or her loved one died for nothing. Nobody wants to face the fact that the person died in an embarrassing way. So I tell them lies, I make everybody into a hero. If it’s a choice between actual fact that can only cause sorrow and lies that raise people’s spirits, I’ll take the lies every time. It’s not for the army, it’s for the families that I go on telling these beautiful lies.

I’m absolutely committed to this as a storyteller.”

This was the kind of man that Samii was.

And this was why Kaim continued to protect him on the battlefield. Beyond his bodyguard duties, he would also go for a drink with him whenever Samii suggested it.

But then there were those times when Samii started pestering him for stories.

“Come on, Kaim, tell me what you remember from the battlefield. Share those stories with me. I’m sure you’ve got hundreds of them.”

No matter how much Samii begged, Kaim kept his mouth shut.

“It’s not as if I would use them for story material. If you don’t want me to tell anybody, I won’t. I swear. I just want to know, I have to know. Call it part of my nature as a storyteller. I have this incredible need to know your stories.”

Kaim said nothing.

“You know, Kaim, you look young, but you’re actually five or six hundred years old, aren’t you? I’ll bet you’ve got more stories packed inside you than a roomful of thick history books. I can tell. That’s why I’m so curious about you. Who are you? What are you? What have you been doing all these years? I’m dying to find out.”

Still Kaim said nothing.

Samii headed out once again to the front. This time it was for a major battle that was likely to determine the outcome of the war.

Samii and Kaim were sharing a drink in their barrack the night before a major confrontation when a young soldier, just a boy, paid them a visit.

“It’s me, Uncle Samii! Aran, the tailor’s son.”

Samii instantly broke into a warm nostalgic smile. Wrapping an arm around Aran’s shoulders, he expressed his joy at their reunion before turning to Kaim.

“Aran is from my home town.” he explained. “I’ve known him since he was an infant. He’s like a little brother to me.”

Turning back to Aran, he asked, “How’s your mother?”

“She’s well, thanks. You should hear her boasting about you, though, Uncle Samii. She tells everyone she’s so amazed how that mischievous little Samii turned out to be one of the most popular figures in the whole country!”

“I owe her a lot, Aran. She told me so many stories when I was a kid, that’s what helped me to be come a storyteller.”

“Really?”

“It’s true. She made me what I am today.”

Samii said this with a big smile, which suddenly gave way to a stern expression.

“But tell me Aran,” he said, “what are you doing here?”

“I enlisted. I’m in the army now.” he said, puffing out his chest.

“That’s what everybody does when they hear your stories.”

“You heard me telling stories?”

“Sure. I had to come into town for something and I saw this big crowd in the square. I looked to see what it was all about, and it was you! I stayed and heard every last story. I couldn’t stop crying at the end. Out of nowhere, I suddenly felt the courage to fight for the fatherland. As soon as you were through, I went to the castle and volunteered.”

Aran had not been the only one, apparently. The young men in the square had enlisted en masse.

“No wonder you’re so popular! The man in the enlistment office was saying the number of volunteers jumps every time you perform.”

Aran innocently sang Samii’s praises, but Samii’s stern expression never changed.

“Aran, you’re the only son in your family, aren’t you?”

“Sure, but that doesn’t matter.”

“Don’t you know this is the very front line?”

“Of course I know that much.”

“So what did your mother say?”

“Well, she tried to stop me of course, but so what? It was my decision. And besides, it was you, Uncle Samii, who taught me that fighting to protect the fatherland is more important than anything you can do for your parents.”

Suddenly the bugle sounded for nighttime roll call.

“Uh-oh, I’d better get to my post.” Aran said, and after a quick goodbye he hustled out of the barrack.

His conversation with Aran having been cut short, Samii sat up straight and gulped down his cup of liquor.

Kaim said nothing as he refilled Samii’s empty cup.

“You know, Kaim, starting tomorrow, you don’t have to protect me anymore.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I want you to protect Aran instead of me.”

He gulped down another cup of liquor in a single breath. Kaim refilled it again without comment.

“I can’t let him die. His mother really did do a lot for me from the time I was a little kid.”

Samii pounded his fist against the wall. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” he moaned.

The battle started at dawn. The fighting was intense.

Soldiers on both sides died in great numbers. Kaim stationed himself besides Samii, protecting him from the enemy blades that came slashing his way.

“I told you Kaim, forget about me! Protect Aran! He’s the one you should be guarding!”

“I can’t do that.”

“Of course you can. You’re the only one who can keep him alive!”

“If I move away from here, I can’t be sure of keeping you alive.”

“I told you, it doesn’t matter about me!”

“I’ve been ordered to keep you alive. It’s my job.”

“No, I told you! Guard Aran!”

Samii stood there shouting when an enemy soldier charged in from the side, swinging his sword.

Kaim swept the sword aside and stabbed the soldier in the belly.

It was a close call.

If anyone other than Kaim had been assigned to guard duty, Samii would surely have been killed.

“I can’t let you die.” Kaim said.

“Is your duty that important to you? Or are you looking for a reward?” Samii taunted Kaim.

Just then another enemy soldier charged at him.

“Neither!” Kaim replied, as he cut the man down with a single slash and hid Samii behind him.

“So then, why?”

“Because there’s something left for you to do – something only you can do!”

Samii screamed at him “Don’t be stupid!” and came out from behind Kaim, exposing himself to the enemy.

“Something only I can do? What, tell another bunch of lies? Make up more stories about phony heroes? Excite more little kids like Aran to enlist?”

“No!”

Kaim shot back, shielding Samii again and cutting down another charging enemy soldier.

“That’s not your real duty.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Not the duty the army assigned you. Your duty as a human being.”

“Now you’re talking nonsense.”

“No. I’m telling you, it’s something only you can do.”

Kaim continued swinging his sword, cutting down enemy soldiers to protect Samii.

Eventually the enemy attack ended.

Kaim grabbed Samii’s hand and started running.

They rushed toward the position of Aran’s unit.

Kaim had no intention of standing by and allowing the under age soldier to be killed, but abandoning Samii on the battlefield was out of the question.

His only option now was to guard them both at the same time.

But he was too late.

Aran was lying on the ground, drenched in blood, moaning in pain, weeping.

His guts had been gouged out.

He was done for.

Barely conscious, Aran caught sight of Samii and managed the faintest of smiles.

“Uncle Samii . . . I couldn’t do anything to serve the country . . . I’m sorry . . .”

Samii, in tears, shook his head.

“I messed up.” Aran continued. “I couldn’t even kill one enemy soldier . . . and now look at me . . .”

Samii tried to speak through quivering lips, but his words were drowned out by his own sobbing.

“I never knew . . . how scary it is to fight . . . how much it hurts to die . . .”

Aran vomited blood.

Convulsions wracked his entire body.

His eyes had lost their focus, and his breathing came only in snatches.

“Mama . . . Mama . . . oh, it hurts so much . . . my stomach hurts . . . Mama . . .”

Bloody tears poured from his empty eyes.

“Mama . . .”

That was the last word that Aran spoke.

Samii came back to town a few days later. The square was already filled with people anxiously waiting to hear his latest stories.

There were more people dressed in mourning than usual, evidence of the ferocity of the recent battle.

Samii took a long, deep breath before entering the square.

“You know, Kaim . . .”

“What?”

“You said those strange things to me the other day. That I have a real duty to perform, that it’s my duty as a human being and only I can do it.”

“I remember.”

“If, today, I do a good job at performing what you call my ‘real’ duty, will you tell me those stories of yours?”

Samii added that he had a vague idea of what Kaim was talking about.

Then, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, he said,

“Tell me, Kaim, how many men are standing guard in the square today?”

Kaim did a quick surver and reported that there were five guards.

Samii mumbled, “Can’t get away from all of them, I suppose . . .”

When he heard this, Kaim realized that Samii’s “vague idea” of what he was talking about was right on the mark.

“I’m sure I can get you out of here, Samii.” Kaim said with conviction.

“Forget it.” Samii answered with a grave expression.

“I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“You know what they’ll do to you if they catch you . . . “

“Sure. I’m ready for that.”

Yes, without a doubt, Samii understood what his “real duty” was.

He not only understood but he intended to carry it out in exchange for his life as a storyteller.

“You know, Samii, you may be the one person who can stop this war.”

Kaim thrust out his right hand, and Samii grasped it shyly.

“It took me too long to realize it.”

“Not really.” Kaim said.

“You think there’s still time?”

“I do.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” Samii said with a smile and, releasing Kaim’s hand, he strode into the square. Amid cheers and applause, he made his way to the stage.

He never looked back at Kaim.

When Samii mounted the stage, a woman dressed in mourning called out to him.

“Samii, tell me what it was like when my sweet little Aran died. I’m sure he gave his life proudly, nobly for our dear country. Tell me, tell everyone, about Aran’s final moments.”

Eyes red and swollen from crying, she stared up at Samii, all but clinging to him.

Samii took heed of the look in her eyes.

Without a hint of a smile, he gave her a curt nod.

And then, he began to tell the story in a soft and gentle voice.

“Aran was in tears as he died. He was calling for you, his mother, and crying out in pain. His guts were hanging out of his body, he was smeared with blood, and he vomited blood at the end.”

A stir went through the crowded square.

Not wanting to believe what she had just heard, Aran’s mother covered her ears.

Samii did not let this stop him.

“Aran wasn’t the only one. They’re all like that. They’re in pain when they die. Some of them die soon after the pain begins, but for others it’s not so easy. Their wounds just barely miss a vital organ, so they die after tremendous agony that goes on and on and on. Bodies lie on the battlefield exposed to the weather. They get trampled and rained on and baked under the sun, covered with flies and maggots, rotting and giving off a foul stench that would make you sick.”

The stir in the crowd changed to angry shouts.

The guards on duty turned pale.

Samii went on quietly.

“I’ve been to dozens of battlefields and I’ve seen more deaths than I can count. I have learned one thing from it, and I’ll tell you honestly what that is. There are no beautiful deaths in war. It’s true for our enemies and it’s true for us. Everybody is afraid to die, they miss their home towns, they want to see their families again, and they want the damn war to end so badly they-“

“Enough! Stop right now!” shouted one of the military men standing guard.

“Have you gone mad?” another soldier yelled.

Samii went on talking without a glance in their direction.

“Nobody really wants to kill another person. They just have to do it because they’ve been ordered to. That’s what war is. If you hesitate to kill the enemy, he kills you first. I’m telling you, that’s what war is!”

The shouts of “Traitor!” “Arrest him!” that had been coming from the soldiers in the crowd gradually stilled as Kaim circulated through the audience, knocking one after another with well-placed blows.

Kaim was determined to do this much for Samii whether the storyteller liked it or not.

Of course, there was a limit to how much extra time he could buy for Samii.

But he would protect him to the end – until Samii had his final say.

“Listen, everybody! Why do you think I’ve been making the rounds of the battlefields? It was a terrible mistake on my part. What I have seen out there . . . my stories about what I have seen out there . . . I should have used to bring a halt to this stupid war!”

The commotion in the square had given way to utter silence, such power did the words of the peerless storyteller have over the crowd.

“Listen to me everyone! Let’s end this war. Let’s end all war. Don’t you see how crazy it is to call a man a hero for killing another man? Don’t you see how sad it is to call a man a hero for being killed by another man? Think of the people who have died in agony and tears. The one thing that we, their survivors, can do for them is not to venerate and glorify them but to stop producing more victims like them.”

Soldiers outside the square came charging in when they heard the commotion.

“Let’s stop having wars. Let each of us lend his or her own power to an effort to bring back the peace!”

A soldier leaped onto the stage and smashed into Samii with his massive shield.

Sprawling on the stage, blood gushing from his head, Samii gave a deeply satisfied smile.

“Cut my tongue out with a hot poker! Do it for the way I’ve been deceiving the people all these years! Go ahead, do it!”

The soldier kicked him in the stomach until he vomited blood, but still he went on.

“It’s wrong for people to kill people. It’s wrong for people to be killed by people. The nation has no right to make murderers out of us!”

Soldiers surrounded the stage.

Behind the wall of soldiers, Samii was pinned to the floor, his mouth pried open, and his tongue cut out with a red-hot glowing poker.

Even so, he kept up his appeal.

No longer capable of producing words, he continued his desperate appeal with groans.

Before long, the groans took the form of a melody – a song so beautiful and sorrowful, so frail and yet so powerful, that it was unforgettable after a single hearing.

The soldiers pounded Samii with their clubs, shouting, “Shut up, you traitor! Take that!”

Even so, the song did not end. Though it had no lyrics, it took on words as it reverberated inside each listener.

No more.

No more.

No more war.

“Shut him up! Kill him if you have to!”

In response to his superior’s order, a young soldier drew his sword.

Even after Samii had been stabbed in the chest and had taken his last breath, the song did not end.

The crowd filling the square went on singing.

Everyone was crying and singing, and as they sang they threw stones at the soldiers.

According to the history books, this was the beginning of the revolution.

Many years passed by.

There was no one left in the country who knew the living Samii.

Many more years passed by.

By then only the scholars of history knew that there once lived a storyteller named Samii who primed the pump of the revolution so long ago.

Now Kaim is here, on his first visit to this country in several hundred years. In a back alley in a far corner of the city, he hears a familiar melody.

A little girl is humming to herself as she bounces a ball. Yes, without a doubt, it is the song that Samii was singing after the soldiers cut out his tongue.

“What’s the name of that song you’re singing?” Kaim asks the little girl.

Still bouncing her ball, she answers “It’s called ‘Give Us Peace.'”

“Do you know who made it?”

“Uh-uh,” she says in all innocence, “but everybody sings it.”

Kaim gives her a gentle smile and says, “It’s a nice song, don’t you think?”

The little girl catches her ball in both hands and, hugging it, says with a beaming smile, “Yes, I just love it!”

Kaim pats her on the head and begins to walk away.

Before he realizes it, he is humming “Give Us Peace.”

When it finally dawns on him what he is doing, he thinks,

Humming? That’s not like me at all!

His grim smile is accompanied by a warm glow in the chest.

End

 

Thousand Years of Dreams Day 31: The Queen’s Loneliness


For Day 31 we have the remembered dream-memory of the third immortal in the Lost Odyssey game. We already have many from the immortal warrior Kaim and from the eternal pirate Seth. Now we have one from the immortal Queen Ming. Her dream-memory is titled “The Queen’s Loneliness”.

This particular dream-memory is almost like a fable teaching any future ruler or leader what sacrifices one must make to succeed in their chosen profession. A leader must sometimes set aside personal ideals and wants for the greater good of the people. This ultimately leads to a sort of isolation. Isolation from ever believing the very people they may need to negotiate with or gauge to become a valued advisor.

It’s a frank look at the burder of leadership that not everyone is suited for. For many the thrill and power of leading will soon give way to loneliness that most cannot handle. It’s why those few who can make such sacrifices (family, friendship, camaraderie) for the greater good of the many will always go down as some of the best leaders we will ever have.

The Queen’s Loneliness

A thousand years can change everything, including the landscape. Queen Ming surveys her capital from the palace window. The panoramic view is like a great history book. The volcano towering in the distance, which used to spew clouds of smoke, went dormant 700 years ago. Once part of the sea, the inlet was reclaimed 500 years ago to become a village for the fisherfolk who spend their lives on the ocean. The River once arched grandly across the landscape, but the deluge that occurred 300 years ago became the occasion for major flood control construction in the form of a perfectly straight channel. Where the river used to curve there is now an oxbow lake in which reeds grow in profusion, and the banks provide people with a rich natural bounty. Even the area that was a barren, rock-strewn wasteland became a vast fruit-bearing garden thanks to the irrigation project that was undertaken 200 years ago.
The mountain that was the center of the people’s religious faith was enveloped in sky-scorching flames 100 years ago. Formerly swathed in a thick green covering and seen as the home of the gods, the towering peak was transformed into a bare rock pile by a forest fire that burned for three days and three nights. Almost everything that lived in the forest- birds, beasts, of course, but many people too- died in the flames. The people in the village below mourned the horrible transformation of their gods’ abode, but now, a hundred years later, the mountain is as green as ever.
The people of the village and the people of the mountain still tell the story of the fire, but today’s children can hardly imagine that the rich, green slopes were once charred and blackened. Restored though it is to its original green lushness, of course, the mountain could well be enveloped in flames again- a hundred years from now, two hundred years from now, or even tomorrow. Even if it should be charred bare again, however, trees would sprout anew, the birds and beasts and insects chased away by the fire would return to their homes, and, given enough time, the mountain would be covered in green as before. Such are the workings of nature.
Given enough time, dizzying stretches of time… But no. To become dizzy at the thought of vast stretches of time is a privilege of the ordinary folk- those who have no choice but to devote all their energies to living in the present. How fortunate that they are able to look back to the past of 1000 years ago like an old man telling a child a fairy tale, “Once upon a time, a long, long time ago…” And how truly fortunate one would be to be able to tell the story of their country’s future as a rosy dream the way children relate their own dreams of the future with flashing eyes, and to entrust that dream to the next reign! Ming stands next to the window like this every morning. It is a special time of day for her, when she thinks about the livelihood of her subjects, watches for signs of enemy intrusions, and ponders measures she might wish to adopt. She has done this every day without fail for the past thousand years. The country has flourished. The people no longer starve as they did when she took the throne.
Future historians will no doubt sing praises of Ming’s thousand-year reign. She will be extolled as “The Thousand Year Old Queen.” and her noble figure will be vividly engraved in people’s memories. Cherishing these memories of her, however, people will die before she does. The historians who praise her, too, instead of witnessing her reign to its end, will themselves become a part of history. Ming has been a queen for the past thousand years. And probably will be for the next thousand years as well. “Her Majesty is in excellent high spirits again this morning, I trust.” She hears the voice behind her. Her gaze still fixed on the streets of the city below, Ming answers. “You are early today.”
“Not so early if her majesty is already observing the smoke rising from the cauldrons of her people.” She need not turn to ascertain the identity of the smiling face behind her. It belongs to Nagram, her senior minister. The smile is courtly, genial. But deep within the narrowed eyes, she knows, there resides a dark gleam. “Today, I will accompany Her Majesty in the inspection of the troops.”

“You?”

“Yes, owing to a slight change in assignments today.”

“Is that so?”

“I am hardly up to the task, but I will do my best if Her Majesty will allow me to serve her in this capacity. I beg her permission.”

With her back to Nagram, Ming gives a silent nod. ‘’Ah yes’’, she thinks to herself with a bitter smile. Their plan goes into action today. Ming has sensed for a very long time that Nagram is up to no good. He apparently has seized command of certain units of the royal guard. Scattered throughout the city, too, his people are lying low, waiting ready to set fires as soon as his orders come down. No doubt about it: today; when the regular ceremonial inspection of the troops is scheduled to take place, is the perfect day for a coup. When Nagram leaves, Ming enters her office and summons Hannes, the most senior of her ministers, a true elder statesman and her most trusted confidant. Hannes, who sports a luxurious beard, has served Ming for over forty years.

 

“Your Majesty, I understand Nagram was here earlier.”

“Yes, apparently he is to accompany me to the inspection of the troops.” This she has to tell him. Stroking his busy beard, Hannes says, “That means they’ve run out of patience.”

“I know, replies Ming. “I’m sure they can’t wait to get started.”

“What a fool Nagram is! He has absolutely no idea that Your Majesty has been letting him set his own trap.”

“If he were smart enough to realize that, he would be taking at least two more years to make his preparations.”

 

Then he would much more power at his disposal. He could link up not just with the royal guard but also the main body of the army and the police force. He could conspire with the external enemies and arrange for them to invade just when the ceremonies were getting underway. Then his coup would probably succeed. If he had the long-range vision to include the wealthy merchant and the intelligentsia among his allies, he might even be able to mount a revolution that would overthrow the monarchy itself. “This is what I would do if I were Nagram. As long as I was undertaking a coup, I would think about that much at least.”
Hannes’ smile could not hide the fact that all this talk of successful revolution was making him uncomfortable. “Her Majesty is unmatched by any enemy except one- her Majesty Herself!”

He May be right, Ming thinks. If she had an enemy with an eternal life like hers who was willing to devote all the time needed to planning a revolution- be it a whole century or even two- the result would surely go beyond revolution and develop into a full-scale civil war. Human lives, however, are limited in duration. And because of this limitation, humans rush to achieve results before they are ready. Nagram is one of them. If he could live two hundred years (to say nothing of a thousand), he would not be trying to take up arms at such an in-between point in time.
“Still,” says Hannes, “I have to admit that Nagram has extended his forces far more successfully than I ever imagined. What have I been doing all this time, I am utterly ashamed of myself.”

“Don’t let it bother you, Hannes. Thanks to your ‘inattention,’ we will probably be able to smoke out many more rats.” Ming gives a satisfied chuckle. Nor is this mere bravado on her part. They chose not to arrest Nagram at an earlier stage but allowed him to swim free for a while in order to take this opportunity to net the entire force of rebels both inside and outside the palace.
“Yes, I know,” Hannes replies and goes on to explain the plan for crushing the coup. His plans are impeccable. The coup has virtually no chance of succeeding. All they need to do is carry out a wholesale arrest of the rebel guard units that rise up in the palace and the partisans lurking in the city, and it will be some time before any more individuals with outsized ambitions show up again. “This will be our first purge in fifteen years,” Hannes remarks.

“Has it been that long?”

“It certainly has, Your Majesty. This fine beard of mine was jet black last time.”
Hannes commanded the troops that put down the coup fifteen years ago. Loyal, courageous, and cool-headed, he is the ideal staff officer. Without a doubt, he is one of the very best military advisors Ming has ever had in a thousand years on the throne.

“How selfish of me, Hannes. I should have let you retire years ago.”

“That is out of the question, Your Majesty. Serving you is my life. I am deeply honored to have this final opportunity to be of service.”
True, not even this superb retainer could be with her through all eternity. In another five years- ten at most- Hannes, like other loyal retainers of the past, would be laid to rest to the sound of military cannons. It is always like this. Just as the ambitious ones rush to make their mark because they cannot live forever, the loyal ones in whom she can place her complete confidence stake their very lives on serving her because they cannot live forever. They carve their names in a single line of history and then they depart from Ming for the rest of eternity. Ming herself though, goes on living. Eternal youth. Immortality. So this is the dream of humanity is it? None of them knows the loneliness of eternal life.
When Hannes next addresses Ming, there is a new urgency in his voice. “About the troops that will quell the uprising… I will command the ones outside the palace. Do I have Her Majesty’s permission to put command of the interior palace guards in the hands of my young protégé, Yan?”

“Ah yes, Yan…”

“He may be young, but he is extremely capable. I have nurtured him carefully. I know he will serve Her Majesty Splendidly after this old soldier is gone. I would like to give him the opportunity to distinguish himself in the current situation.” Ming herself is fully aware of Yan’s outstanding qualities. Young as he most certainly is, he far excels the other chamberlains in both the civil and military arts. He is undoubtedly the prime candidate to succeed Hannes as Ming’s top general.
“What are Her Majesty’s thoughts on the matter?”

“All right, then, Let him take charge.”

“Her Majesty has my unbounded thanks! I am sure Yan himself will be deeply moved to learn that he has earned Her Majesty’s confidence.”

Hannes all but prostrates himself before her, an expression of relief at having obtained Ming’s permission. “But still,” he continues, “Her Majesty has been wary of Nagram for a very long time.”

“True,” she says.
“Meanwhile, this old soldier of yours had no idea whatever that Nagram might be planning a rebellion. I am deeply ashamed to confess it now, but to me he seemed the very model of loyalty. How was it that Her Majesty was able to see Nagram’s actual disloyalty?” Ming only smiles without answering his question. “The same thing happened at the time of the coup fifteen years ago,” Hannes continues. “The only reason we were able to suppress the revolt before it even got started was that Her Majesty saw it coming before anyone else. Then as now I was blind to the traitors’ plot.”
“If you say so Hannes…”

“Has Her Majesty forgotten?”

“Well, it was long ago…” Ming tries to evade the issue. There is no way she could have forgotten. The ringleader of the coup fifteen years ago was her most trusted retainer. When she first broached the subject to Hannes and the others, warning them to be on guard against the man, all without exception insisted that he, above all, was beyond reproach. In the end, Ming’s suspicions proved to be correct. She knew. However faithfully he carried out her orders, however warmly he swore his loyalty, she knew. These days however, she has begun to wonder on occasion if that is something to be grateful for.
The landscape is not the only thing that changes in a thousand years. People’s hearts also change. After numberless meetings and partings over the centuries, Ming has come to realize the fragility- the evanescence of trust. She no longer trusts anything in words. Neither can she fully trust everything in action. She knows by looking at a person’s eyes. That way she can tell everything- to a mysterious and disheartening degree. In the eyes of those that would bring harm to this country, without exception, there is a dark gleam. It is there in all of them: the man plotting a coup, the man secretly involved with foreign enemies, the man fattening his purse with heavy taxes wrung from the people, the female spy who seduces high ministers to extract state secrets, the man who accepts huge bribes from merchants eager for the glory of becoming an official purveyor to the royal household.
Neither their words nor their deeds give them away. Often, the man himself has no idea of the misdeeds he will later commit. But Ming can tell. Only Ming, who has lived for a thousand years. The silent voices tell her: Be careful of this man. Don’t take your eyes off that woman. This was not the case in her youth. But having repeatedly tasted the bitter experience of betrayal, having been assailed by her own regrets and self-reproach, she has learned to doubt. Ming can see what no one else can- that dark gleam deep in the eyes. This has enabled her to ward off a variety of disasters before they could start. The kingdom has managed to flourish because Ming has more often chosen to doubt than to believe. This is the best course for her to follow as queen. It is however, an infinitely lonely way to live.
Nagram’s coup collapses in an instant. The rebel units of the royal guard, who draw out their swords against Ming during the inspection of troops in the plaza, become the prey of Yan and his men, who have been hiding around the perimeter. Meanwhile, the anti-rebel forces, under Hannes’ command, pounce on Nagram’s followers, who have been gathering to set fire to the city and arrest them without resistance. Poor Nagram grovels on the earth, begging for his life. To him, Ming says only, “I grant you the right to die with honor.” A soldier lays a sword before Nagram. Wordlessly, Ming conveys to Nagram that it is time for him to take his own life. She turns on her heels and returns to the palace under armed escort.
This will keep anyone from having thoughts of fomenting a rebellion- for a while, at least. The peace of the kingdom has been preserved, but it will not last forever. When the memory of Nagram’s coup begins to fade- ten years from now, or twenty, or even a hundred- another man with ambition will emerge as has happened many times before. It is the role of the queen to accept this endlessly repeating cycle, Ming tells herself, sighing. Ming is standing at the palace window, surveying the city streets below, when Yan enters the room.
“Your Majesty, I am here to report that Nagram successfully took his own life a short while ago.”

“Oh, did he dispatch himself with some dignity?”

“He did. Traitor though he was, he died in a way befitting a commanding general.”

“Return his body to his family with all due ceremony.” She turns and stares straight at Yan, whose spine stiffens under the onslaught of her gaze. And then she sees it- without a doubt. That dark gleam flashes deep within his eyes for one fleeting instant. So Yan is another one, is he? she thinks with a bitter smile. Unable to fathom the meaning of her smile, Yan is at a loss for words. “Thank you for all your efforts.” Ming says to him. Suppressing a sigh, she turns to the window again.
The sky stretches overhead in an expanse of blue. The only thing unchanged for the past thousand years is the blue of that sky. But still, I am the queen, Ming tells herself, meditating on her role. I am the only one who rules this country and maintains the people’s happiness. She gazes long and hard at the sky, rising to her full, proud height.

“Oh look, it’s Queen Ming!” A little boy in an alleyway below the castle spots Ming and begins waving at her wildly. “Queen Ming! Queen Ming!” A woman, the boy’s mother, no doubt- charges out of a doorway and, bowing humbly to Ming, begins to scold the boy for his rude behavior. Ming herself, however, waves back at him, a placid smile on her face. Smiling joyfully at this unexpected response form Her Majesty the Queen, the boy starts jumping up and down, shouting, “Long live Queen Ming! Long live Queen Ming!”
Ming stares again into the sky above. Unchanged though it has been for a thousand years, the blue of the sky penetrates more deeply into her eyes and her heart than it ever did in the days of her youth.

Thousand Years of Dreams Day 30: Lottery of Life


We’re at the final stretch run and for Day 30 of this 33-day Shigematsu Kiyoshi short story marathon we have “Lottery of Life”.

To put it plain and simple it’s that when we as a society begin to divide people into simplified groups like “losers” and “winners” or even “troublemakers” then we’re moving towards the next step of what needs to be done with groups who don’t agree with us. The last decade or so has seen many such changes to how we’ve begun to treat each other. Some of it borne out of fear and some of it from longstanding prejudices cultivated through ignorance and misinformation.

While there’s a need to separate those who can never change for the greater good, the means by which we do so will never be dry and clear-cut. Do we use methods that succeeds in saving lives but at the same just continue to forment the very hatred which separates a people into hating another group? There’s never a straight answer and sometimes the need to step back and reassess the situation the best way, but such things require for people to think with compassion and reason. It’s a shame that the very people we give the power and authority to make such decisions rarely practice one and the other to solve our problems.

Lottery of Life

Having kids is like playing the lottery.

That was how the police commissioner put it, with a grim smile and a sigh. He was the man in charge of domestic security.

“Sometimes you pick a winner, and sometimes you pick a loser.

Life is like that. You can’t control it.”

Kaim responded with a silent nod.

Not that he was convinced that you could divide people into “winners” and “losers.”

But that was how they did it here in this country that was the size of a city. He had no choice but to recognize it as reality because the man who kept the peace here believed it, and this nation was known for having the best public safety of all the countries in the region.

“Every kid in there is a loser,” he spat out, jerking his chin toward the juvenile prison visible from his office window.

Built to hold young criminals, this was the largest – and the most strictly run and most closely guarded – prison to be seen in any of the neighboring countries.

Its treatment of its young inmates was also the harshest.

“You’re a foreigner, Kaim, so you may not approve, but we have our own way of doing things.”

“I see,” Kaim said.

“Losers are losers. There’s nothing you can do to make losers into winners. It’s never going to happen. Far from it. If you coddle losers, they just turn into bigger losers and give the decent people a lot of trouble. See what I mean?”

“That’s one way of looking at things.”

Kaim’s deliberate irony was lost on the police commissioner.

“No. It’s the only way – if you’re going to have a safe, peaceful country,” he declared. “And we’ll expect you to abide by this view, too.”

Kaim had nothing more to say to him.

If he were to insist on confronting the police commissioner, he might be seen as questioning the authorities, which could land him in the adults’ prison. This would be easy enough to bring about for the police commissioner – and indeed for anyone in the city-state who stood on the side of the powers that be.

The commissioner glanced again toward the juvenile prison.

“They built that place eighty years ago,” he said. “Which is to say, the very first building they made when the present political system came into being was a prison to throw young offenders into.”

Kaim knew this.

For Kaim, whose life went on forever, events of eighty years before could well have happened yesterday.

Eighty years earlier, this country had experienced a coup d’etat. The revolutionary government ruled the people under a military dictatorship and jailed every last person suspected of disturbing the peace and order.

The government was especially wary of younger criminals.

“There’s a limit to how serious a kid’s crimes can be.

But let them get away with those, and the next thing you know they’re doing really bad stuff. They might be satisfied with shoplifting at first, but soon they’re into burglary, muggings, they start using weapons, and in the end they think nothing of killing people.

You have to nip them in the bud.”

The kids sent to prison were fed the absolute minimum to keep them alive. No doctor saw them if they fell sick or were injured. Subjected to such harsh imprisonment, they succumbed one after another, and more than a few of them ended up as cold corpses pitched out the back door.

Whenever one did manage to serve out his term and return to the outside world, he found it impossible to erase the brand of “loser.” Children with criminal records were soundly rejected by respectable society. The social system was structured in such a way that nothing worked for them: employment, marriage, even finding a place to live. Expelled by society, these boys and girls returned to crime as a way to stay alive, eventually ending up in adult prison.

With a bitter smile, the police commissioner said to Kaim, “I’m sure this all sounds terrible to an outsider like you.”

Kaim answered with a slight nod.

This only served to increase the bitterness of the commissioner’s smile.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said.

“And to tell you the truth, I sometimes think the system is a little too harsh on them, too.

But you have to realize that we’re not just punishing bad kids: We’re also holding them up as an example to the good ones. What would they think if they saw the ex-criminals out on the street again walking along like nothing ever happened? They’d just figure that even if they got their hands dirty and spent a few years in jail, they could just go back to their old lives, that society’s punishment is no big deal, that they can get away with murder. We wouldn’t want our kids to be like that, would we? So the only thing is for us grownups to teach them. Look at those guys, we can say. All it takes is one bad deed and your life is over. So you’d better listen to your parents and teachers and be good.”

He definitely had a point.

Kaim was willing to grant him that.

But still, the commissioner must have noticed a hint of shadow crossing Kaim’s face, and he shifted his tone of voice.

With bureaucratic conviction, he declared, “The authorities have received word that there is going to be a coup. Of course the military have everything under control, so there is nothing to worry about. They could suppress it right now if they wanted to. They could easily attack the agitators and capture the ring leaders of the plot. In this case, though, they have decided to let it get started in order to smoke out every last one of the reactionary elements.”

According to the government’s intelligence, the uprising was scheduled to occur that very night.

“We are prepared to just about any eventuality, but there is always the possibility of the unexpected. If there were a riot inside the juvenile prison timed to coincide with the rebellion, that could be a real problem.”

This is why Kaim had been hired as a temporary prison guard – a bodyguard for the state.

“We’re counting on your skills as a seasoned warrior, which is why we’re entrusting you with such a major responsibility. Be sure you live up to our expectations. If you have to resort to violence, we have no problem with that. Whatever you do, it will be for the sake of law and order. It will be in order to protect the happy lives of the decent citizens of our nation. Carry out your duties with complete dedication of body and soul.”

The commissioner handed Kaim a one-page document.

It was, literal, a license to kill.

“And without the slightest restraint. All the prison guards have one of these.”

“But still…”

“If you hesitate to impose the ultimate punishment on a single ‘loser,’ then countless ‘winners’ among the upstanding citizenry must suffer the consequences. You understand, I’m sure. Once a loser, always a loser. Rather than living with such a burden, they themselves might be happier to have you kill them and get it over with.”

Kaim accepted the document from the commissioner without comment.

“that completes our contractual arrangement. Now assume your post.”

With a perfectly straight face, the commissioner cautioned Kaim. “Just make sure you don’t let any foolish compassion get in your way.”

The season was mid-winter, but Kaim found no hint of fire burning in the juvenile prison. In their tiny solitary cells, the young inmates, wrapped in ragged blankets, lay helplessly in the dark. Painful moaning came from one cell, suggesting its inmate might be running a fever. From another cam the unbroken shrill mean laughter that could only mean the person’s mind had snapped.

“What you see is what you get,” said the veteran guard guiding Kaim on his first round of inspection.

“Not one of those faces shows any life. So even if something were to happen, these pitiful creatures couldn’t do a damn thing. They’re ‘losers’ all right. They’re breathing, but that’s about it.”

“Is there really no possibility of them being rehabilitated and becoming winners?”

The other guard gave Kaim a momentary blank stare and then said with a laugh and a wave. “No, no, no, none at all.”

Eighty years since the revolution, and the change of generations had replaced virtually all the people from that time. Since coming of age, this prison guard, who had no memory of life before the revolution, had been implanted with the ideas that people were either “winners” or “losers,” and he surely never doubted it.

“They went out of their way to hire you, so it might be a little strange for me to say this, but I’m sure the kids in here are never going to riot, no matter how wild things get on the outside. Splash a little cold water on them, and they’ll quiet right down. There’s almost none of them you have to worry about.”

“Almost?”

“Well, I can’t claim that about every single one of them. There are even losers among the losers, unfortunately.”

The guard showed Kaim to the end of the hall, and there he opened the lock on a door so thick it could be mistaken for a section of wall.

“Beyond here are the punishment cells. This is where we throw the incorrigible losers- the ones who have caused trouble on work details, the ones who take a defiant attitude, the ones who show no sign of remorse for their crimes.”

Suddenly it was clear to Kaim.

It was clear to him because he had experienced countless battlefields in his life.

The punishment cells were darker and far colder than the regular cells. But from the depths of the darkness – from within each individual cell – there emanated a quiet heat that could not be felt from the regular cells.

The people in here were alive.

They were not simply breathing. They were alive with real passion.

“The crimes that originally got them locked up here were nothing much – a little burglary, some purse-snatching, flashing a knife, stuff like that. If they had just quietly served out their terms, they’d be out now, living obscure lives somewhere.”

Instead, they resisted, and kept resisting.

They called for better treatment of inmates. They appealed for an end to discrimination against former prisoners. The number of their “crimes” multiplied, until it became clear they would never get out of there alive.

“They’ll just go straight from here to the adult prison when they grow up. It’ll be twenty or thirty years before they can breathe the outside air again – if they can live that long, which would be quite an accomplishment.”

The guard concluded with a belly-shaking laugh, which was interrupted by a voice echoing from a dark cell.

“Stop that laughing.”

It was a quiet but commanding voice, though one that retained a hint of boyishness.

A look of fear crossed the guard’s face, though he quickly reverted to a sneer.

“This is the biggest pain we’ve got,” he said.

“His name is Diran. They say he was the leader of a gang of juvenile delinquents on the outside, but here he’s just a noisemaker.”

The guard picked up a bucket of water from the corridor floor with a thin sheet of ice on its surface and heaved the contents into Diran’s cell.

“This is what works best on these kids.”

Behind the bars, the drenched boy had rolled himself into a ball.

“This should be enough for them to freeze to death, but the water itself freezes again in the early morning. So then their hair and eyelashes – and any other hair they’ve god – gets coated in ice. Some of them have lost fingers and toes to frostbite.”

The guard laughed again.

Diran lay there curled up, but his eyes were shining with such intensity, it was as if he were trying to melt the ice with the heat seething in his breast.

Kaim knew those eyes. They were the eyes of a warrior. And not just any warrior, but one on the very front line in a losing battle who watches for a chance to turn the battle in his favor.

And Kaim knew something else – that the system was beginning to unravel. It had kept the people in a state of suppression for eighty long years, ever since the revolution, but the very moment of its undoing had arrived.

The prison fires started that night.

“Kaim! It’s the coup!”

The guard came running to report the situation on the outside. Fires had been set throughout the city, he said.

This was, of course, the uprising that government intelligence had anticipated. Martial law was declared, and the government was mobilizing the entire police force and army. Word had come, too, that the ringleaders were already under arrest.

One element, however, had been wholly unanticipated.

The guard informed him, “The wind is strong tonight.”

Fanned by unseasonable winds, the flames were racing through the city.

“On orders from the commissioner: we are not to fight fires in the juvenile prison, is that clear? Do not engage in firefighting here.”

In other words, no one would be coming to save the inmates.

“It can’t be helped,” said the guard. “The army and the fire department have all they can do to put out fires in the city and evacuate the people. They can’t spare any men to protect this place. And we’ve been ordered to join in the rescue effort in town.”

“I guess that means we let the kids out.”

This was a given, Kaim assumed. Left locked up in their cells, the young inmates would burn to death.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the guard shot back. “These kids are all losers. We’ve gone to the trouble of locking them in here, and now we’re supposed to let them out?”

“Are you serious?” Kaim replied.

“Are you serious? I can’t believe you’d say anything so stupid. I’m telling you, they’re losers. We don’t have time to save them, and we’re certainly not going to let them run loose. The commissioner would never allow such a thing.”

He obviously meant every word he was saying.

They were planning to let them die.

The flames were spreading quickly, and screams could be heard throughout the prison.

There was no time to appeal directly to the commissioner, and such an appeal would only end in failure, he was sure.

“Give me the cell keys,” Kaim said.

“You’re joking,” the guard laughed.

There was only one thing to do.

Without a word, Kaim landed a punch in the guard’s solar plexus.

The guard went down in a heap, and Kaim tore the clump of keys from his belt.

The first cell he opened was Diran’s.

The boy came out looking confused.

“Are you one of us?” he asked Kaim. “Are you with the coup?”

“Not interested,” he answered.

“So why are you letting us go?” Diran asked.

“Because I don’t like dividing people up into ‘winners’ and ‘losers.'”

“Thanks,” Diran said.

Sporting a big grin, he took the keys from Kaim and turned away to start opening the other cells.

“I want you to come back,” Kaim said to him from behind.

“What’s that?”

“This is an emergency evacuation. When the sun comes up and the fires are out, I want you to come back here. You kids still haven’t finished paying for your crimes.”

“You must be kidding.”

“Not at all,” Kaim said. “If you kids run away, that’ll just prove they’re right – ‘Once a loser, always a loser.’ Is that all right with you? Don’t you want to show the ones who rule this country that they’re wrong – that people can change?”

“But we’ll never get another chance like this!”

“This coup is going to fail. You can run around all you want, but they’re going to catch you in the end. You’ll always be branded ‘losers.’ They might even kill you when they catch you.”

Diran turned to stare at Kaim.

The prison was already surrounded by flames. Against this bright red backdrop, Diran’s eyes still burned with the fighting spirit of a warrior.

“The country’s political system can’t last much longer. The day will come when you kids can leave the prison with your heads held high. I absolutely believe that. And because I believe it, I don’t want to see you die for nothing.”

Kaim turned from Diran to pull the guard up form the floor.

“Come back at sunrise.”

With this final admonition to Diran, Kaim hoisted the guard onto his back and trudged away.

These events occurred fifty years ago.

An air of freedom pervades the country now when Kaim visits fifty years later. True, he does catch glimpses of young toughs and juvenile delinquents where the nightlife thrives, but he feels this is just a sign of the free and easy times.

And old man calls to him, “Are you a traveler?”

When Kaim nods, the man says with a smile, “You’re in luck. We’re having a celebration in Revolution Square today. I hear the grand old man of the revolution is going to attend. It’ll keep going all night long.”

“A celebration?”

“That’s right. I see you’re too young to know what happened here in the old days. We had a coup fifty years ago on this very day. The coup itself was put down in one night, but the rebel troops set fires all through the city, so the rest of us were running around like crazy in all directions.”

Fanned by the wind, the flames quickly enveloped the whole city, and a lot of the city people were stranded on a sandbar downwind.

“I was one of them. I had my pregnant wife and baby daughter with me, so I couldn’t just dive into the river to escape. Before we knew it, sparks were raining down on the sandbar, and I figured we were done for – we’d all burn to death as soon as the dry grass caught fire.”

Just as he was giving up hope, he says, a helping hand was extended to them from the most unlikely source.

“The kids from the juvenile prison came to help us. They were all skin and bones, and their prison uniforms were falling apart. The prison staff hardly fed them a thing, but they pooled what little strength they had. They saved old folks and children from the sandbar, and they struggled to douse the fires that caught in the dry grass. I saw one boy carry a child across the river and collapse and die the second after he reached the other shore, and some of the ones who were fighting grass fires were overcome by the smoke and burned to death. They risked their lives to save us. Their own lives were not worth living, but those ‘losers’ risked their lives to save ‘winners’ like us.”

When the sun came up and they could be sure that the fires were safely out, the young inmates went back to the juvenile prison.

“Yes, it’s true. The place was an absolute hell for them, but they went back inside just the same. Not one of them took advantage of the confusion to run away. They played it strictly by the rules, wouldn’t you say? We were really moved by their behavior, and people started saying that maybe these ‘losers’ had their good points after all. Maybe ‘once a loser, always a loser’ was wrong.”

The whispers spread throughout the country, quietly but surely.

Soon the view emerged that the treatment of juvenile prison inmates should be improved.

Another increasingly widely-held view was that society ought to welcome ex-inmates more warmly once they had paid for their crimes.

Finally, the change in attitude toward ‘loser’ children took the shape of dissatisfaction with the political system that had continued to foster such a dictatorship and, forty years ago, a second coup occurred.

“This next coup took the shape of a citizens’ revolution that involved the masses, and for that reason it succeeded. That’s how the form of government we have today got its start.”

Listening to the old man’s reminiscences, Kaim finds himself smiling and nodding again and again, deeply moved.

The last thing the old man tells him is the name of the hero who led the revolution and became the first president of the new government: Diran.

Tens of thousands of people have gathered in Revolution Square. As fireworks are sent aloft and a brass band plays the rousing national anthem, the grand old man of the revolution takes the stage amid thunderous cheers and applause.

“Diran!”

“Diran!”

“Our Diran!”

Advanced in years now, and having long since removed himself from the center of politics, Diran still has that youthful, firey gleam in his eyes.

There is no way for him to spot Kaim among the assembled throng. And even if he were to notice him, he could never imagine that this young man, unchanged from fifty years ago, was the temporary prison guard on that fateful night.

Still, the old hero proclaims,

“People can change! There are no ‘winners’ or ‘losers!'”

His words are greeted with cheers and fireworks, and the excitement of the celebration reaches its peak.
Kaim makes his way to a stand at the far end of the square and buys himself a cup of liquor.

He raises his cup to the hero of the revolution, who, from his distant vantage point, appears to him no larger than a speck.

He downs the drink in a single breath. When the intensely strong liquor has passed his throat, it leaves a sweet and mellow aftertaste.

End

Thousand Years of Dreams Day 29: Return of the Native


“Return of the Native” marks Day 29 of the Shigematsu Kiyoshi marathon of short stories which made up the dream-memories of the immortal Kaim in the rpg title Lost Odyssey. For some this dream-memory may sound familiar in that it has a passing resemblance to the moral story of the “prodigal son”.

Unlike the son in that tale, the one in this dream-memory could never be mistaken for the stubborn, albeit good-natured child from that tale. This son is a bad seed from the very beginning. The dream-memory is not about the son, but of the mother left behind who still loves her wayward son gone from her for most of her life. It shows that a mother’s love has no limit. They will forgive whatever transgressions their child has done just to have them back in their life.

We see examples of these in everyday life. Of mothers sticking and supporting their son accused of crimes both petty and heinous. They cannot defend what their child has done, but they also cannot abandon them when they’re most needed by their offspring. I think this is why as adults we’re always much closer to our mothers. Why mothers are always seen as the nurturer.

Return of the Native

The mother stands by the island pier, waiting for her son.

Her luggage is bigger than she is. Dressed in her finest traveling clothes, she seems hardly able to contain her excitement as she speaks to Kaim, who happens to be waiting for the same boat to arrive.

“I got a letter from him,” she says.

Almost thirty years have passed since her only son left the island of his birth. There was no word from him in all that time until he recently wrote announcing his successes and his plan to bring her to mainland.

“I’ve been alone ever since I lost my husband, so just to think I might be able to spend the rest of my life with my son, his wife and my grandchildren…”

She sold the house she had always lived in and has been waiting for her son to come for her.

The letter arrived over a week ago.

“I wonder why it’s taking him so long. The seas are calm.”

Kaim arrived here on yesterday’s ferry.

“You mean he’s late?” Kaim asks with some surprise.

“Very,” she replies, forcing a smile. “I wonder what’s wrong. Maybe he got busy all of a sudden and can’t pull himself away from his work.”

“He hasn’t written again to explain?”

“He’s never bothered with things like that, not since he was a child,” she says, straining to smile again and glancing toward the horizon.

No bigger than a dot at first, the boat is now big enough for a clear view of the mast in silhouette.

“Anyhow, I’m not worried. I know he’ll be on this boat,” she says, raising herself from the clockside crate on which she is sitting and waving a handkerchief toward the approaching vessel.

Kaim also stares hard at the boat, which gives his eyes a stern expression.

“Young man?”

At the sound of the mother’s voice, Kaim hastens to soften his gaze before turning toward her.

“You are a traveler, aren’t you?”

“That’s right,” he says.

“I saw you arrive on yesterday’s ferry. Are you leaving so soon?”

She is obviously curious about this stranger, but her face shows no wariness toward outsiders.

Relieved to see this, Kaim replies, “I’m doing the same thing you are – waiting for someone to arrive.”

“On this boat?”

“Yes, probably.”

“You haven’t been in touch with this person?”

“No, we haven’t agreed on a time. I might be waiting for nothing, too.”

“Oh, really?”

Kaim evades further questioning with a strained smile.

This is not something he can discuss with just anyone.

He is on a secret mission – one that must not fail.

The woman still wears a look of puzzlement, but their conversation is swallowed up in the general hubbub on shore, accompanying the approach of the boat.

At last the ferry arrives.

One by one passengers alight after their half-day trip from the capital on mainland.

Clutching the handkerchief to her breast, the mother scans each of them.

There are peddlers who travel from island to island hawking their wares, and men who have come to do larger-scale trading; sunburned young men and women who arrive from the mainland in groups to work on the island’s farms, and men coming home to the island after a season of labor on the mainland.

None of the dozens of passengers, however, is the woman’s son.

Once it has disgorged its island-bound passengers, the ferry takes on people crossing to the mainland. Greeters on the pier give way to well-wishers.

The mother turns her back on the pier’s hustle and bustle and plods her way toward the town. She hoists a heavy pack onto her back and lifts a large suitcase in each hand, but she has taken only a few steps when the pack begins to slide off.

Kaim reaches out to keep it from falling.

The woman turns with a look of surprise, and when she realizes that Kaim is alone, she asks,

“So your person didn’t come, either?”

“Looks that way.”

With only one ferry a day from the mainland, all they can do is wait until tomorrow.

“Are you going to stay on the island until your friend comes?”

“I might have to…”

“You could run up quite a hotel bill that way.”

“I’m all right. I’m used to camping out.”

“Camping out?” she exclaims with a look of amazement.

Then she smiles and says,

“Oh, well, you’re young, and in good condition. A few days sleeping outdoors shouldn’t be too hard on you.”

“What are you going to do, Ma’am? Go back home?”

“I wish I could. I sold my house last week. I was so sure my son would come and get me right away.”

A hint of discouragement clouds her face, but she quickly recovers her smile and continues,

“The money I got for the house is a nice little bundle, so I’ve decided to spend freely for a change. See that large hotel over there? I’m staying in their biggest room and taking it easy all day and all night, too. I’m disappointed when he doesn’t show up, of course, but I’ve worked my fingers to the bone all these years. It won’t hurt me to indulge myself just this little bit.”

Though delivered with a smile, her words touched Kaim deeply.

In her case, “Worked my fingers to the bone” is not just a figure of speech, as evidenced by her suntanned face, which is so unsuited to the cosmetics she had applied to greet her son, and especially by her bony fingers, so ill-concealed by the cheap rings she is wearing.

Hard as she undoubtedly worked, life has granted her few rewards. There is nothing expensive about her luggage.

“I’m sure your son will be here tomorrow,” Kaim says.

Her deeply wrinkled face breaks into a joyous smile.

“Yes, of course, tomorrow for sure,” she says with a deep nod.

“I hope the person you are waiting for comes on tomorrow’s boat, too.”

“Thank you very much,” he replies.

“I have an idea,” she says. “You might get sick camping out. If you’d like, why not stay in my hotel? I’m sure we could arrange something for one extra person.”

Kaim senses that she is not suggesting this out of mere politeness, which is precisely why he demurs with a smile and a nod.

“Thanks just the same,” he says, “but don’t worry about me. Just take the rest you deserve after all your long years of hard work.”

“If you say so…” She seems somewhat disappointed but does not press him to accept.

As he watches her trudge off toward her hotel alone, all but hidden from view by her huge bundles, Kaim wonders if, perhaps, she was hoping that his company might ease her concern that her son might not show up after all.

Even so, he decides not to chase after her and retract his refusal. He is the wrong man to spend time with a mother whose only dream is to have a happy old age.

Most likely, when tomorrow’s boat arrives, she will finally be reunited with the son she has longed to see all these years.

The person that Kaim is waiting for will also most certainly cross over to the island tomorrow.

The mother will undoubtedly shed great tears when her reunion takes place.

Kaim, on the other hand, has a bloody job to perform when he encounters the man he’s waiting for.

Kaim has been hunting him. The man is a fugitive, and there is a reward on his head.

He is known as the boss of an underworld gang in the capital, and he has committed crimes without number – robbery, fraud, extortion, assault, and even murder. To cap his life of crime, he double-crossed his own gang and ran off with a great deal of money. Word reached the gang only a few days ago that the man is headed for this island, the place of his birth, and they hired Kaim to take care of him.

The fact that they hired Kaim means they are ready to have him killed on sight.

Kaim and the mother meet at the dock again the next day at the same time.

And again the next day,

and the next,

and the day after that.

The ones they are waiting for never come.

A week goes by.

The mother switches accommodations from her expensive hotel to a cheap inn frequented by traveling peddlers.

“Actually, I’m more comfortable in a cheap place like this,” she tells Kaim with a laugh, but more than likely her money would have run out in the first hotel.

“Your person is very late, too,” she observes.

“True…”

“Who is it?”

He sidesteps the issue with a strained smile.

He cannot answer her question if he is going to carry out his duty.

And besides, he feels a tiny premonition deep inside.

The mother stops questioning him and says, “I hope your person comes soon.”

Another three days go by.

A messenger from the gang, disguised as a peddler, whispers to Kaim as he steps off the ferry,

“We think he’s still hiding in the capital. We’re looking in every rat hole we can find, but there’s no sign of him.”

Kaim nods silently and glances at the boat.

Even after the last passenger alights, the mother stands on the pier, looking up at the boat’s empty deck.

“Let me ask you, young man…” the mother says to Kaim three days later.

“Does the place where you’re camping out have a roof to keep the dew off?”

Kaim has been sleeping in a dilapidated old house he found near the harbor.

“All I need is a place to sleep,” she says. “Would you mind if I joined you there?”

“What’s that?”

“The place I’m staying at now is not much better than a ruin. I’m sure I’d be fine wherever you’re staying. Yes, I’m sure I’d be fine.”

She smiles like a child who has found a new source of mischief.

Kaim does not refuse her.

More precisely, he cannot refuse her.

She has probably run out of money even to stay in her current flophouse.

Kaim has noticed her cheap rings gradually disappearing from her bony fingers.

As they pass the night in the abandoned building, the moon their only source of light, the mother, without prompting from Kaim, spills out her memories of her son.

They are by no means pleasant memories. Known as a roughneck even from his earliest years, the boy was hated by all the neighbors and caused his parents a good deal of shame.

“He would steal our money, stay out all night partying, and before we knew it he was the number one thug on the island. He was always getting into fights and bothering girls. During the island’s annual festival he would go wild and destroy property, so my husband and I would have to go around apologizing to everyone.”

The father, a skilled stonemason, lost his job when the son stole valuables from the boss’s house.

The mother could hardly walk down the street without being subjected to the glares and finger-pointing of the neighbors. Things got especailly bad after her son set fire to the island assembly hall just for fun.

His parents raised him badly, the boy’s misbehavior is the parents’ responsibility, the son has bas became such a thug because his mother spoiled him rotten, it’s the parents’ fault, the father’s fault, the mother’s fault, your fault.

They had heard it all.

“It was so hard for us on a little island like this! There was no place we could hide.”

The boy was eighteen when he finally ran away from home – or rather, left the island when his parents all but disowned him.

The other islanders rejoiced as if a plague had been lifted. One man went so far as to deliberately let the parents overhear him declaring, “I hope that bastard goes to the capital and dies in the gutter.”

The boy’s father died five years ago.

To the very end, he would not forgive his son, and in his final delirium, he was still apologizing to the islanders.

“But still, to a mother, any son is the baby she once carried. I never heard a word from him, but I went on praying that he would stay healthy in the capital, that he wouldn’t catch whatever epidemic was going around, that he wouldn’t get into fights. But that’s just me, I guess.”

She gives Kaim a bitter smile.

“Or maybe it’s just me being a mother,” she adds.

“You have parents too, I suppose? Of course you do! Everyone has parents!

“True.”

“Are your father and mother alive and well?”

Kaim bows his head in silence.

On a journey with no clear beginning and no definable end, Kaim is unable to answer a question like this.

Instead, he asks the woman,

“What is the first thing you’ll say when you finally get to meet your son?”

“Good question,” says the mother. After thinking it over a few moments, she replies, “I won’t actually say anything. I think I’ll just hug him and say nothing at all. I’ll hold him tight and let him know how glad I am he’s alive and well.”

“Just supposing though,” Kaim presses her gently, “if you knew that he had lived a less than exemplary life in the capital, too, would you still give him a hug?”

Her response is instantaneous.

“First I’d hug him, and then I’d give him a good talking to!”

She smiles shyly at Kaim and adds,

“That’s what being a parent is all about.”

The next morning she runs a high fever. She may have survived the dew, but a night in the dilapidated building has taken a toll on the old woman’s health.

Even so, when it is time for the ferry to arrive, she struggles to her feet and heads toward the pier with uncertain steps.

Alarmed, Kaim holds her back.

“You’re in no shape to be going out,” he says.

Despite his attempts to bring down her fever with cool spring water from the forest, it is as high as ever. Her labored breathing has taken on a congested rumbling.

“I have to go,” she insists. “My son is coming for me. I’m going to see him…”

She sweeps away Kaim’s restraining hand, but the effort causes her to lose her balance and sink to her knees.

“If he’s on board, I’ll bring him here,” Kaim assures her. “Tell me how I can recognize him.”

Cradled in Kaim’s arms, half-delirious with fever, the wold woman mutters,

“On his left cheek… before he left the island…he got in a fight…somebody cut him…he has a scar…”

Kaim nods and lowers the old woman to a straw mat spread on the ground.

He fights back with a sigh and closes his eyes momentarily, then he stares hard through a small window at the ferry dock.

His suspicions were right after all, though he was sure of it last night.

Kaim was given a written description of the man when he took on the assignment from the gang.

There could be no doubt: “Scar on left cheek.”

The ferry is approaching the harbor.

The pier is showing signs of activity.

Kaim starts for the door.

Behind him, he hears the woman staying,

“Please…don’t kill him…don’t kill my boy…”

Kaim stops short, but instead of turning around, he bites his lip.

“I don’t know what he did…in the capital…but don’t kill him… please…”

So she knows, too.

She knows everything.

“If you have to kill him…if you absolutely have to…please, before you do it…let me just…”

Kaim leaves the ruin in silence.

His steps are uncertain as he makes his way into the blinding glare of the afternoon sun.

This time the man is there.

Trying to lose himself among the traveling peddlers, the man with a price on his head and the scar on his left cheek steps down to the pier.

He is far more emaciated than Kaim’s written description would have led him to believe. No doubt he is exhausted from his years as a fugitive. Still, he has fulfilled his promise to his mother by coming back to the island of his birth.

His eyes dart fearfully over the pier.

His expression changes from that of a man searching for someone to the panicked look of a child who has become separated from his parent.

Kaim slowly plants himself in front of him.

The man knows nothing of Kaim’s mission, of course, and has never met him before.

But he has the instincts of an inhabitant of the back alleys. His face freezes, and he turns to flee.

Kaim grabs him by the shoulder – but lightly, in a way that would make an onlooker think he was witnessing the joyful reunion of old friends. The man tries to shake off the hand, to no avail.

It would be easy enough for Kaim to kill him on the spot.

His eyes show that he has no strength left to fight. Kaim has far more experience than the man does at surviving potentially fatal encounters.

The man knows this.

“If you’re going to kill me, get it over with,” he snarls.

“But if you’ve got a trace of kindness in you, you’ll give me one last chance to do something good for my mother. It won’t take long. Just let me see her. Once. Then you can do whatever you like with me.”

Kaim lets his hand drop from the man’s shoulder.

He is not going to run away.

“So, I didn’t make it after all…” he says with a forced smile. His face tells Kaim that he has probably resigned himself to this fate. It suggests, too, an air of relief at having finally brought his life as a fugitive to an end.

“How many men have you killed?” he asks Kaim.

“I don’t have to answer that.”

“And I don’t really want you to tell me. It’s just that, well, looking at you, I’d say I’m older than you are, and there are some things a person comes to realize when he’s lived a long time. Think about the guys you’ve killed. Every single one of them had parents. Killing a person means killing somebody’s child. Right? When that finally dawned on me, I left the gang. Gangs don’t pay retirement bonuses, so I sort of ‘borrowed’ a little money from them and thought I’d use it to…well, I’ve given my mother a hard time all these years…”

His voice grows thick and muffled. He shakes off the emotion and proclaims with a laugh,

“Ah, what the hell! That’s a lot of sentimental nonsense. I don’t know how many guys I’ve killed over the years, so I figure I’m getting what I deserve. I can’t hate you for what you’re doing.”

A shout comes from the ferry deck: “We will be departing shortly! All passengers bound for the capital should be boarding now!”

Kaim looks hard at the man and says, “Just tell me one thing.”

The man says nothing in reply, but Kaim continues,

“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you see your mother?”

“Huh? What are you talking about?”

“Never mind, just answer the question.”

“I’ll say, ‘I’m back.’ No, I won’t say anything. I’ll just take her in my arms. That’s all.”

“Give her a big hug?”

“Sure. That’s what parents and children are all about.”

Kaim relaxes the grim expression on his face and jerks his chin toward the forest beyond the pier.

“There’s an old, broken-down house in the woods. Your mother’s waiting for you there. Go to her.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t ever come back to the capital. And don’t stay on this island. Take another ferry and go far away to some other island. With your mother.”

The man looks stunned. “You…I mean…”

His voice is trembling.

Kaim says nothing more.

He leaves the man behind and strides toward the boat before it can depart.

Mission accomplished.

Kaim does not care if, in return for this deed, he is labeled a traitor to be pursued by the gang. The image of his own parents praying for their son’s welfare has long since faded from his memory.

 

“Pulling out! Please hurry!” comes the cries of the ferry’s crew.

A big gong is ringing. Startled by the sounds reverberating between the vast stretch of ocean and open sky, brightly-colored birds dart up from the forest. Large birds and small birds – parents and their young? The larger birds seem almost to be shielding the smaller ones beneath their slowly-beating, outstretched wings.

Thousand Years of Dreams Day 28: A Chorus of Cicadas


Day 28’s dream-memory is called “A Chorus of Cicadas”. At first glance the tale being told through Kaim’s remembering this particular memory seem quaint at best and silly for those with cynical hearts. But if one really looked at went deeper into the memory it tells a story about why we sometimes must fight even when peace is what we truly want.

This tale reminds me of the Latin phrase “Si vis pacem, para bellum” which simply translated means “if you want peace, prepare for war”. While war is never something to be undertaken there are times when we must protect that which we hold dear: a bright, peaceful future for our children and their children. It’s the right of every person to defend their hearth and home. To keep their loved ones safe even if defending them involves violence.

Many conflicts, both large and small, always seem to have an element of greed behind it. One side wants what the other side has and willing to fight over it. Which is why it’s much harder to fight for moral ideals and the betterment of future generations than it is for material gain.

A Chorus of Cicadas

This forest is home to a priceless treasure.

A marvelous–and exceedingly rare–creature lives here.

You could search the entire continent and never find another such habitat.

 

“Of course, the value of our ‘treasure’ is not apparent at first glance.”

The village elder holds a cup of liquor made from fermented berries as he speaks. His ancestors have kept watch over this tiny village for generations.

It is summer, and the massed cries of a million cicadas pour down upon the small fort that guards the entrance to the village. The chorus of insects sounds like a steady rain.

“I wonder if you gentlemen understand what I mean?”

The elder scans the dozen or so powerfully-built men gathered at the fort.

All of them wear a look of puzzlement. All but one, that is.

 

“You said your name is Kaim?” asks one of the villagers. “You seem to know what he’s talking about.”

Kaim nods and points upward.

“It’s the cicadas,” he says.

A stir goes through the villagers. With a delighted smile, the elder says, “So you know, do you?”

Far from delighted, the men in armor share suspicious glances.

All are mercenaries.

They have been hired by the villagers to protect the forest’s “treasure.”

 

“Hey, hey, wait just a second there.” rumbles the voice of one soldier, perhaps emboldened by the liquor.

“Are you telling me this ‘treasure’ we’re supposed to protect is just cicadas? What’s so special about them? They’re everywhere.”

“That is true.” says the elder. “Which is why I said the value of our ‘treasure’ is not obvious at first glance.”

 

“They sound just like any cicadas I’ve ever heard.”

Another of the mercenaries says, with a look of amazements.” Yeah, how is this ‘chorus of cicadas’ different from any other? They sound just like the ones in my hometown.”

The other soldiers laugh in agreement.

“Absolutely,” says one.

“No difference,” says another.

 

The elder and the villagers, however, are not amused.

They turn to Kaim as the elder asks him, “Will you help us protect our ‘treasure’?”

“That is what I’m here to do,” he replies. “Tell me again, Kiam. Do you really know the meaning of the ‘treasure’ of this forest?”

“I do . . .”

“Then let me ask you this. Do you know when this summer’s battle will bear fruit?”

Kaim takes a sip of his liquor, releases a long, slow breath, and says,

“In 75 years. We’re fighting for the summer 75 years from now. Is that what you mean?”

 

Another stir goes through the group of villagers.

The elder, with a great look of satisfactions, nods deeply and refills Kaim’s cup.

To the stunned mercenaries, the elder says.

“We have protected our cicada chorus generation after generation.

The ones who made it possible for us to hear this summer’s chorus–listen. It sounds like pouring rain!–are the villagers who were grown-up men 75 years ago when I was just a boy.

The chorus that shook the forest last summer was protected 76 years ago, and next summer the cicadas protected 74 years ago will start singing together. This is how we have prtected the forest of cicadas over the years.

Do you gentlemen now see how much it means to us?”

 

It is a matter of simple arithmetic.

After the eggs are buried in the ground, the cicadas that live in the forest spend 75 long years in the larval stage. At last, in the summer of their 75th year, they become mature insects, come out of the ground, and sing like mad in the treetops for the short week or two they remain alive.

Just before they die, they come down from the trees, mate, and bury their eggs in the ground. The new crop of eggs then spend another 75 long years in the earth . . .
“The fact that we can hear the cicada chorus this summer means only one thing; that the forest was at peace 75 years ago. Similarly, if the forest remains at peace this summer, the villagers will be able to hear the chorus 75 years from now. We have used what little money we have to pay you gentlemen to assemble here for this: to make the forest resound with the cicada chorus in 75 years.”

All the mercenaries but Kaim openly show their disappointment.

“Wait just a second now, grandpa,” says one soldier standing ramrod straight. “You mean to say we’re supposed to risk our lives to protect a bunch of bugs?”

“Exactly.”

“And even supposing we succeed in what we risk our lives for now, the results won’t show up for 75 years?”

“That is precisely what I mean.”

 

“Come on, old man, you must be kidding. If it were money or valuables, that would be one thing, but we might lose our lives here. And for what? Bugs?”

“Well, you are mercenaries, after all.”

“Okay now, grandpa, I’m going to ask you one last time. I know this village is poor and I know you people have had to scrimp and save to put this money together. There’s no question about that. But whenn you say this is for bugs . . . for 75 years from now, you’re not living in the same world I’m living in. For something like that, you’re willing to spend every last bit of money you’ve got and, in the bargain, get us to gamble our lives?

Are you insane?”

 

“We want the children 75 years from now to hear the cicada chorus for themselves. What’s so strange about that? Now we are having trouble understanding you.”

“Don’t toy with me, old man! I can’t take a job like that!” the man shouts and storms out of the fort. Some of the other mercenaries call out to him. “Hey, wait for me!” “I’m coming with you!” “Risk our lives for bugs” What a rotten deal that is!” and they hurry after him. One man after another disappears with a parting remark. “I’m keeping my advance, though,” several of them add.

The only fighter left in the fort is Kaim.

 

The “downpour” of the cicada cries continues unabated.

The whole forest sounds like one gigantic creature.

 

One young man is working the lookout post at the fort in place of departed mercenaries.

He asks Kaim, “Are you all right with this?”

“I’m fine. I knew what I was getting myself into.”

“I heard after they left . . . those men are a bad bunch.”

“It’s true. They’re really in it for what they can get after the job is done.”

They’re fine until they finish protecting the village from the enemy. Then they start asking for “bonuses.” They grab valuables and harass villagers: “We saved the village for you, right? It wouldn’t hurt you to give us a little extra,” they say. The reason this year’s mercenaries quit is because they realized there was no hope of any bonuses out of this village.

 

“Why did you stay, Kaim?” the young man asks him. “There must have been a lot of jobs that would have paid you more.”

“I just thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to risk my life for something 75 years in the future for a change. That’s all.”

The young man nods his head thoughtfully. Then he tells Kaim one of the old stories of the village.

 

“Long, long ago, way before I was born, when the elder was still a boy, there was a summer when the cicadas didn’t sing at all. Of course, this means that, 75 years before that, there was a battle that ravaged the forest. The elder says that the summer forest without the cicada chorus was so sad and lonely it was horrifying: it actually gave him the chills. The trees themselves were alive, but it felt as if the whole forest had died. Sitting alone in the silent forest, he felt so lonely he wanted to cry. And, worse, he felt intense anger toward our ancestors for not having protected the forest 75 years earlier. The elder tells this story whenever he’s had a little too much to drink.”

Kaim nods in silence.

“I know all about that,” he almost lets himself say, but he swallows his words and smiles instead.

 

The young man goes on, “So anyhow, when the elder was sitting and crying in the forest, he says a traveler came along. A young man. Big and strong–a man like you, Kaim. And he said to the elder, ‘Don’t ever forget how sad and lonely you are today. When you grow up, make sure you never let the children who will come 75 years after you feel this way.’ The elder says he doesn’t remember the man’s face, but he will never forget his words. He tells this story to the young people of hte village over and over.”

Kaim nods again, saying nothing, but the skin on his back seems to creep beneath his shirt.

 

“All these years, the elder has kept the promise he made to the traveler. No matter how much the merchants might have pressed him, he has never let them do anything that will ruin the forest. He has kept on good terms with the neighboring villages to avoid making enemies. He has sometimes entered into dealings that were not to our advantage and lost many chances for us to make money. This is why the village is still so poor.”

The young man gives a self-deprecating chuckle. Still, not one person in the village resents the elder for what he has done. The village kids have always gone into the forest to ‘bathe’ themselves in the shower of the cicada chorus. That’s just how we grew up: we took it for granted. We all feel nothing but gratitude toward the elder–and all the ancestors who came before him–who have enabled us to hear the cicada chorus every year.”

 

Kaim says nothing in reply, but he begins to savor the creeping feeling across his back.

He brings to mind the face of that young boy he met so long ago–more than eighty years ago.

“Why aren’t the cicadas singing?” the boy sobbed. “Why is there not even one cicada this year? Why did our ancestors burn down the forest back then?” But he had a gleam in his eye, and that same gleam, hidden by wrinkles, still resides in the eyes of the elder. Passed down from one generation to the next, it is there in the eyes of the young man guarding the fort with Kaim.

 

This is the very reason that Kaim is here.

Now the village, which has kept the peace for so many years, is about to be attacked. The neighboring country is expanding its power. It’s army has violated the border and is heading this way.

The prospects for victory are slim.

The elder says, “If you can get us through this summer, that is all we need. All we ask is that you help us prevent them from devastating the forest until the cicadas have planted their eggs.”

 

The neighboring country is not likely to show much interest in this poor village, which is merely a pathway for the army marching toward the city beyond the forest. If the village can hold out until the end of summer and surrender with the coming of fall, the enemy will probably charge straight through the forest and head for the city.

The elder says, “And when, after a nice little visit, they leave us, we’ll have to offer them a parting gift. They can have this worn-out old head of mine.”

Laughing, he mimes cutting his own head off.

The elder has transcended any unseemly attachment to the world. He has lived a full life. Now all he wants to do with his remaining time is to give the children 75 years in the future the chance to hear the cicadas.

 

Tell me one thing. Kaim says to the young man bringing his sword closer to hand.

“What’s that?”

“When you’re a grown-up, will you be able to bet your life on a future that is still 75 years away?”

“I will,” he replies without the slightest hesitation. “We can’t see the joyful faces of children 75 years from now, but I do know that the forest has to be filled with the crying of the cicadas every summer, whether now or next year or 75 years from now or even beyond that. That’s what they call the grownups’ responsibility. And I’m not the only one who believes this: all the young people of the village do.”

 

“The elder has raised some damn good young people, I see.”

“What’s that? Did you say something?”

“No, nothing at all.”

Kaim holds himself in readiness, staring straight ahead.

Dust clouds well up on the horizon. An enemy unit seems to be approaching.

 

The chicadas cry without ceasing.

The enemy is coming.

“All right. It’s time.”

Kaim heads out to battle.

The cicada chorus reverberates endlessly as if playing the song of life.

End

Thousand Years of Dreams Day 27: Beyond the Wall


I really like the simplicity and hopeful message which Day 27’s dream-memory imparts. This latest remembered memory from Kaim is titled “Beyond the Wall” and is quite timely in our current times of discord and division.

I grew up in the final decade of the Cold War when two sides suddenly began to realize that all the hatred between the two superpowers were only going to lead to the utter annihilation of the human race. The biggest and most prominent symbol of this division was the Berlin Wall which separated Communist Berlin from the Democratic side. This city which once was the seat of a genocidal madman who brought the world to war became a new silent battleground between differing ideologies which came out from the end of that war.

People on both sides were taught from an early age to hate the other side. Other nations began to take sides whether voluntarily or forced into by those who created the division. By the time I was old enough to understand the Cold War was at it’s height, but at the same time began to see a gradual decline until the unthinkable occurred in the early 1990’s: The Berlin Wall came down and the city which had been divided for almost a half-century was whole once again and people on both sides realized they had more in common than they realized. The monsters each side thought they would find never came to being.

While the Cold War is now over there are now new divisions both small and large. Divisions created by religious extremism on all sides. Divisions created by political parties who have forgotten the need for polite discourse and instead opted for demagoguery. Even racial divisions continue to exist despite forward strides to eliminate them.

In the end, “Beyond the Wall” teaches a simple moral. For all the hate people may have for the “other side” the truth of the matter is that most people have never met or ever been harmed by the “other side” but have bought into being told to hate those not “them” or “us”. Once that “wall” dividing people gets pulled down and we really see who the “other side” really are then, and only then, can we begin that long journey to quitting the job humanity has always been best at: WAR.

Beyond the Wall

The Wall is being demolished

Sledgehammers resound on both sides.

The Wall marked the national borders for decades — until yesterday. “Border” might not be the right word, however. Originally, both sides were part of a single nation. The country became divided owing to differences in ideology, and the two sides remained so mutually antagonistic that a high, thick wall had to be built. Those days are gone now.

A year ago, the leaders of the two sides shook hands in a historic reconciliation.

Today, after much preparation and coordination, the wall that symbolized the two sides’ antagonism is being demolished. The sound of hammering signals the end of opposition and extols the beginning of peace.

“C’mon, give me a break!” says Yuguno, spitting on the ground and glaring at the backs of the people swarming at the wall.

“Look at them, smiling like idiots. I can’t believe it!”

He glances at Kaim by his side as if to say: “Right?”

His still-boyish face wears a scowl of disgust.

“Tell me, Kaim, you’ve been to a lot of different countries and seen all kinds of people. Can people just take years of hatred like that and throw it out the window?”

Kaim gives him a sour smile instead of replying.

Yuguno is a young man, the first person that Kaim became friends with shortly after he arrived in this border town. He is pleasant enough except for is stubborn hatred of people from the “other side”

“One lousy handshake and I’m out of a job. I mean really, give me a break.”

Yuguno used to be a border guard – in other words, one of the men assigned to keep watch on the wall. He had volunteered, eager to kill anyone who dared to come over the wall from the other side. If his superiors had permitted it, he would have gladly crossed over and attacked the other side rather than waiting to fend off an invasion.

As a mandatory part of reconciliaton, however, the border guards were disbanded. Unlike his brothers in arms, who quickly started new lives for themselves, Yuguno was left behind by the changing times.

“Tell me, Kaim, can people be allowed to just slough off their resentments so easily? Do they just not give a damn?”

Kaim does not respond to this.

He knows Yuguno is a victim of the age of confrontation.

Still just a young man — a boy, even — Yuguno has been thoroughly conditioned since childhood to view the other side as the enemy.

Watch out — the other side could attack at any time.

Watch out — the other side are all cruel, cold-hearted villains.

Watch out — if the other side ever invaded us and occupied our towns, they’d burn down our houses, steal our property, kill our men, and assault our women.

Watch out — the day is not far off when they will be invading us. It could be three days from now, or it could be tomorrow. They might be climbing the wall today. This very moment.

Watch out — they’ve already sent their spies among us. And you can tell for sure who they are. They’re the ones who extol and sympathize with the other side by word and by deed.

Watch out — they’re probing for the slightest gaps in our psychological armor. Remain alert. Be ready to draw your sword at any moment.

Watch out, watch out, watch out, watch out.

There was much to be found out about the other side in the history books distributed in the schools on this side. The pictures of the people from the other side portrayed them all as ferocious demons.

“I’m not the only one, you know. All of us were taught the same thing. So how come everybody but me is so happy about the wall coming down?” Yuguno asks, looking utterly bewildered by these new developments.

Again and again he repeats his disbelief.

Finally, Kaim cannot help but respond to him.

“You were too pure”, he says.

“What?”

“It’s not your fault, Yuguno. It’s the ones who filled your pure, honest heart with hatred.”

“Wait a second now, Kaim. The animals who live on the other side of the wall are the ones who did that to me, the horrible things they do…”

Kaim cuts him short.

“Have they ever done anything horrible to you?”

“Well sure, no, not really to me, but . . .

Well, you see . . .”

Yuguno is momentarily at a loss for words until all he can do is raise his voice and blurt out.

“It’s true, though. The whole bunch of them are just horrible people!”

He folds his arms in a decided pout.

“How are they horrible? What did you ever see any of them do? When? Where?”

Yuguno stammers and sputters.

“Have you ever even met somebody from ever there?” Kaim demands to know.

Yuguno hangs his head and shakes it from side to side.

With a grim smile, Kaim says: “Well, I have. And they’re not devils or demons or anything of the sort. How could they be? You used to be part of the same country! But that stuff is beside the point anyway — countries and races and tribes. You’re all human beings. You’re all the same.”

Yuguno stays silent, hanging his head.

Cheers erupt at the wall.

The wall that has seperated the two worlds for decades has just now been broken through.

Representatives from his side and the other side walk through the opening, greet each other with smiles and firm handshakes, and embrace.

The cheers grow louder, and people — mostly people of the younger generation — gather in circles here and there, expressing their joy.

Yuguno glares down at his own shadow and asks Kaim.

“So, what should I do now? All I’ve ever done is hate. All I’ve ever known how to do is hate them.”

Kaim gives Yuguno a pat on the shoulder and says:

“It’s not too late to change. You can start now.”

“Can I?”

“You can, I’m sure of it.”

Kaim is sure because he knows what it was like when both sides were a single country. It was a kindly nation. By no means rich. It was yet a happy country of compassionate people.

“I’m telling you, Yuguno, people can change.”

“If you say so . . .”

“Look over there, Yuguno. Look at those people enjoying themselves.”

Hesitantly, Yuguno raises his head. Around the wall a celebration is beginning. Young people are dancing, singing, toasting each other, engaging in conversation and all of them used to be companions of Yuguno’s who received the same education he did. No doubt the young people on the other side were similarly educated to hate.

“What do you see over there? Demons? Devils?”

Yuguno shakes his head and lets the tightness out of his shoulders.

“I’m beginning to wonder, Kaim, why until now I’ve been so . . .”

Kaim pats him on the shoulder again to signal that he understands.

“People can change,” he says, “they can change from hating to loving — and from loving to hating.”

Yes, Kaim knows about that well. He saw how such a wonderfully unified country was divided in two at the end of a violent civil war.

“Don’t change anymore.” Kaim says, not just to Yuguno but to all the smiling young people.

A young girl hesitantly approaches Yuguno.

She is from the other side. She holds a plate full of cookies.

“Have some if you’d like,” she says, “I baked them this morning.”

The cookies are heart-shaped.

Urged on by the smiling Kaim, Yuguno reaches out for a cookie, his face bright red.

“Thanks” he says shyly and takes a bite of his cookie.

“Good?” she asks.

Yuguno turns a deeper shade of red and says: “Delicious!”
White bird cut across the blue sky —

from the other side to this side,

from this side to the other.

The white birds sail trough the sky almost joyfully, as if to tell the people below.

In the beginning, there were no borders!

Thousand Years of Dreams Day 26: Signpost


This latest and 26th dream-memory which our eternal warrior, Kaim, remembers is another one which hits home for me. The memory’s title is “Signpost” and it deals with another aspect of mortality we humans have to deal with both personally and intimately.

As someone who has experienced the death of a loved one this particular dream-memory definitely hits home. Death is something which we always think of as something that happened to other people and those people’s loved ones, but never to us. There’s so many ways to interpret this memory, but for me I always thought that it teaches us that people should never be left to die alone. Whether it’s someone who will die young and not have experienced a full life or one who has lived to a ripe-old age, they must always be given the time to spend their final moments of life with someone close to them.

To die is part of the natural of things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help those about to make that journey into that far, green country with some compassion and respect. We need to let them know that their life had meaning and that they affected people around them. That they have a legacy to leave behind. They should be reminded that it’s not their fault they’re dying and that they should have no reason to apologize for. In fact, it’s those being left behind who will have to suffer through the mourning process.

Ever since the day she passed away I have always hoped that my Mom did so with happy thoughts as she moved on and not regrets.

Signpost

“I’ll be gone soon.” Anri says.

“So it makes no difference a life like this.”
She smiles with some effort, puts a gray tablet on her tongue, and swallows it.

Use or possession of this drug by ordinary people is prohibited by law and strictly controlled. The person taking it feels as if every bone in his or her body is melting. All the anxieties and cares of life vanish as the individual wanders in the space between languor and pleasure.

“Why don’t you take one, too?”

Anri pulls another tablet from her leather pouch and holds it out to Kaim, who is standing by her bed.
“Coward!” she says with a grim smile when he shakes his head in silence, and then she places the second tablet on her tongue.

“How many pills does that make today?” Kaim asks.

“Hmm, I forgot . . .”

With empty eyes, Anri stares into space and sighs.

This is an addiction, a serious one.
“How do you feel?” he asks.

“Not bad.” she says. “Very happy.”

She gives him a smile. It is deeper and softer than her earlier smile-though maybe too deep and too soft. It appears to be a smile of ultimate bliss, but, for that very reason, it also has a frightening quality that sends chills up his spine.
The drug is called “signpost.”

This is not its formal designation, of course.

People started calling it that as a secret code word to avoid prosecution, and the term caught on.

“Signpost” is, however, the single most appropriate name for this drug.

Each pill takes the user one step farther down the road. And when withdrawal symptoms strikes, the person rushes to take the next pill, thereby advancing yet another step.
Farther and farther and farther . . .

The road marked by this signpost is a soothing one, entirely free of pain or suffering.

At the end of the road, however, there waits only death.

The use and possession of signpost is so strictly prohibited because it is seen as an invitation to gradual suicide.
“How many more pills, I wonder?”

Anri mutters, stretching her emaciated body full length on the bed.

It is a question that Kaim can not answer. He knows only that she is nearing the end of her signpost journey.

It is for this that Kaim has been called to this hospital, which is a facility for people on the verge of death.
“I have no regrets.” Anri says.

“None at all. This way I die pleasantly, quietly, like going to sleep.”

Her empty eyes fixed on Kaim, but they seem to register nothing.

“I’ll be fine.”

She reaches into the leather pouch again.
“You probably shouldn’t do that.” Kaim says.

“I’m telling you I’m fine.” she says, laughing weakly, and placing a third signpost in her mouth.

She closes her eyes.

Her sunken eye sockets harbor dark shadows.

Kaim settles himself into the chair by her bed.

He waits for her to say more, but she seems to have fallen asleep.

Her breathing is calm, and a slight smile plays upon her sleeping face. The signpost seems to be working. Without the drug, hammer-like pains in her back and violent chills would prevent her sleeping. Even worse than the physical suffering would be the fear of approaching death.
More than a girl than a woman, young Anri was struck by a mortal illness. At the end of her long battle with the disease, the doctor gave up all hope of treating it and prescribed signpost for her instead.

Ordinary people are not allowed to use the drug, but special permission has been given to patients for whom there is no hope of recovery in order to afford them a peaceful death and bring their lives to a quiet close-in other words, to enable them to die without having a deal with a regret or despair.

Before Kaim began this work, a doctor explained the effects of the medicine to him, concluding with a smile, “In other words, signpost forgives all the debts the person has built up toward life.”
Anri wakens.

After she has confirmed Kaim’s presence at her bedside, she says. “You don’t have to worry.” and closes her eyes again, smiling.

“I’m fine. I think I can go just like this . . .”

So, she knows there are other possibilities.
In certain rare cases, signpost can have undesirable side effects. Sometimes at the very end, when the person is just beginning to slide into the abyss of death, there can be an attack of nightmares. The patient experiences a literal death agony. Even though signpost have a provided such a wonderfully tranquil departure on the person’s final journey, every last bit of tranquility can be swept away on the cusp of death.

Worse still, some patients concluded their hallucinatory episode with a frenzied physical outburst. They might have barely enough strength to breathe until, tormented by the nightmares, they lash out violently enough to break the bed or even strangle the caregiver in attendance. Such can be the mysteries of the human body, or, more so, the human heart.
This is why Kaim is here.

He is to stand vigil by Anri’s deathbed against the remote possibility that she might be tormented by nightmares and go wild under the influence of signpost’s side-effects.

The doctor has supplied him with yet another drug.

It is a poison that will kill the patient instantaneously.

Kaim has been instructed to administer it to Anri as soon as she begins to exhibit strange behavior.
“Believe me, this a humane measure,” the doctor said, “not murder by any means. The face of a patient who has suffered the drug’s side-effects is truly grotesque-not something that anyone could stand to look at.

A person’s death should never be that excruciating.

This is a final kindness to give the person a quiet, peaceful ending.”
Kaim was not entirely convinced by the doctor’s rationale. Neither, however, was he able to bring himself to take an issue with it.

Now he can only hope that, led by her signpost, Anri will be able to pass her final moments in peace.

Some part of her inner self might be paralyzed at the moment, and her empty eyes might never regain their former gleam, but if she is happy that way, it is nothing that anyone has the right to deny her.
Waking again, Anri reaches for another signpost but drops the leather pouch.

“Sorry, but . . . would you pick it up for me?” she asks Kaim.

She no longer has the strength even to hold the pouch.

Her final moments are closing in.

Kaim lifts the pouch from the floor, but when she asks him to put a tablet in her mouth, he hesitates for a moment before complying.

Her tongue is dry and rough as sandpaper. She really must be nearing the end.
Having taken another signpost, Anri seems to be overtaken by that languorous feeling again. She moves the flesh of her cheeks in a way that has no meaning, releases a feeble sigh and says, “I was just dreaming.”

“What about?”

“About when I was little . . . everybody was there . . . my father, my mother, my big brother and sister . . . all smiling.”

This is not a good sign. The drug might be having a bad effect.

If the signpost is working properly, she should not be dreaming-especially about her family. The more lingering attachment or regret or sadness a person retains, the more likely he or she is to experience side effects. This is precisely why the family is never admitted to the patient’s room. The final farewells are made before the administering of signpost, and only after everything is finished do they “meet” again.
“Everybody was in such a good mood!”

Kaim wonders if he should give her another signpost.

“I’m sure when I was born that my parents never imagined I would die so young.”

A more season caregiver would probably give her another pill with hesitation. Then Anri would fall into another peaceful sleep without any thoughts to disturb her, perhaps never to wake again.

Kaim, however, sets the leather pouch on a shelf and waits to hear what else she has to say.

Anri herself does not request another signpost but moves the sunken flesh of her cheeks again.

This time the movement takes the form of a deliberate smile.
“You know,” she says to Kaim, “I’m beginning to wonder.”

“About what?”

“Why I was ever born.”

Kaim is at loss for words, but she does not let this prevent her from continuing.

“I mean, if I’m going to die so young, when I’ve never had a chance to fall in love, wouldn’t it have been better if I’d never been born at all?”

Kaim nods as if to tell her that he understands.

Why was I ever born?

This is the question that Kaim himself has been pondering all through his endless journey.

He has still not found the answer, and maybe never will.

“My mother and father will be sad, I’m sure.”

“You had better rest now.”

“Maybe I was born to make my parents sad.”

“Close your eyes and take a few long, deep breathes.”

“Can I have some more medicine?”
This time he gives it to her without hesitation.

“Thank you,” she says simply for the first time, and then closes her eyes.

“I guess it’s possible I might never wake up again.”

“It’s possible.”

“It’s a good thing to die without suffering, isn’t it?”

“It probably is.”

“And to die with your head in a fog, without thinking or feeling anything . . . that’s a good thing, too, isn’t it?”
Kaim says nothing.

This is a question he cannot answer, a question he doesn’t want to answer.

Anri falls asleep without asking him anything else.

She is still sound asleep when the doctor examines her and tells Kaim, “She will probably pass away before the night is out.”
It is late that night-close to dawn-when Anri begins to suffer.
“I’m sorry, Mommy, I’m sorry I ate the jam, It was me.”

She is running a high fever with large drops of sweat on her forehead as she moans deliriously.

“What’s taking you so long, Daddy? Hurry, hurry, the butterfly’s going to fly away!”

Kaim wonders if she could be reliving memories of early childhood.
“You hit me! Big brothers shouldn’t hit their little sisters! You’re bad! I’m gonna tell Mommy!”

Convulsions wrack her entire body.
“Let me in! I want to play with the big girls!”

It doesn’t end with her delirium.

She starts moving her arms as if trying to embrace family members floating around her.

This is what they were afraid of: the side-effects.
“Take me with you, please! I don’t want to stay here! Don’t leave me!”

Her cries mingle with tears. Hallucinations seem to have taken the place of past memories in her empty eyes.
“Please, I’ll be good! I’ll do what you tell me, Mommy and Daddy! Take me with you!”

In fact, just the opposite is happening: the ones being left behind are the family who so loved the youngest daughter, Anri.
“Don’t leave me alone! Mommy! Daddy! Come back, please!”

He can feel her pain and sorrow.

Her convulsions become increasingly violent. Her face contorts in agony.
Alerted by the commotion, a doctor comes charging into the room.

“What are you doing?” he shouts at Kaim, “Put her out of her misery now!”

Kaim knows what he should do.

This is what he was hired for. The poison that will prevent Anri from suffering any more is within easy reach.

What he takes hold of, softly, however, is not the poison but the hands that Anri stretches out into empty space.
“What are you doing?” the doctor shouts at him.

“Stop it! This is a direct violation of your duties! You’re fired!”

Kaim turns toward the fuming doctor and says simply, “Be quiet, please.”

“What in the hell are you-“

But the doctor breaks of his shouting when he catches sight of the look on Anri’s face.

She is smiling.
“Are these my mother’s hands? My father’s? Big brother’s? Big sister’s? Tell me whose hands are these?” she asks joyfully.

Feeling the strength of Kaim’s grasp, she squeezes back, an almost indescribably happy smile on her face, tears streaming from her eyes.

“I’m here with all of you . . . together . . . always . . . “

Her convulsions have subsided, and her breathing has calmed down.
Kaim whispers in her ear, “Thank you, Anri.”

“Daddy?”

Smiling through her tears, she says, “I know it’s you!”

Kaim smiles back at her and says, “I’m speaking for all of us-for me, your mother, your brother, your sister, when I say ‘Thank you, Anri.”

Anri seems almost embarrassed when she asks, “For what?”

“For having been born, Anri. For having come to be with us. For having allowed us to share time with you. Mommy and I and Brother and Sister, we’re all so grateful to you for that.”
Unfortunately, life has its limits. There are long lives and short lives.

And in life-even more unfortunately-there is happiness and unhappiness.

There are happy lives and unhappy lives.

For all of this, however, for the chance to be alive in this world, for the chance of having lived life in this world, the only thing to say is

“Thank you”
When Kaim says this to her, Anri gives her slender chin a little shake and says,

“No, I should be the one to be thanking you…all of you.”

These are Anri’s last words.

The look on her face in death following the torment of the drug-induced nightmares is neither tranquil nor peaceful.

It is, however, happy.
Are you really leaving us?” the doctor asks Kaim with a genuine show of regret.

Dressed for the road, Kaim smiles and says, “I don’t think I’ll be ever able to perform the duties of a caregiver properly.”

“To tell you the truth, Kaim, I still can’t get over the fact that it’s even possible to do it your way.”

With a serious look, he adds, “I wonder if your hands give of some substance like signpost. Otherwise, I can’t imagine how she could have died so happily.”
Kaim turns his palms toward the doctor. “They’re just ordinary hands, nothing special.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” the doctor says. “If we spent some time studying them properly, maybe . . .”

Kaim shakes his head with a sour smile as if to say “You wouldn’t find a thing.”

He does have one point to make with the doctor”

“I’ve seen lots of people die alone-probably a lot more than any of you doctors have. That’s why I wanted to bring her together with her family at the end. That’s the only reason I took her hand.”
The doctor’s vague nod suggests that he is not, but Kaim is through talking with him.

He strides off toward the highway.

He must continue his journey.

His journey will go on as long as he is unable to reply to Anri’s question.

Why was I ever born?

Anri had a family at least. His life consisted of her joining and leaving her family.

Kaim has not had even that much.
Where did I come from?

Where am I going?

Why does the passing wind draw Kaim along on his endless journey?

A journey without signposts.

This is why Kaim is always free-and always alone.

END

Thousand Years of Dreams Day 25: Stones of Heaven


Day 25’s dream-memory is called “Stones of Heaven” and it’s a tale that when looked into should remind people of their own lives.

This remembered dream-memory of Kaim’s explores the meaning of strength and weakness in humanity. In one end, we have people who dedicate so much of their lives to achieving perfection and discipline that they soon begin to shed the very humanity which gave them the strength to begin their journey in the first place. On the other side of the equation we have those who have failed in their own attempts to achieve something great yet from this failure (or failures) they’re able to gain a sort of wisdom which just reinforces their very humanity in the face of adversity and hardship.

Stones of Heaven

The waterfall lies deep in the forest, more than a day’s travel from the nearest village.

It is said to be a holy place.

In search of the divine amid the towering peaks, pilgrims stand beneath the plunging falls in their final ascetic practise.

The water of the falls is freezing cold.

All it takes is a momentary lapse of concentration, and the person is hammered down by the rushing water.

The pilgrims call this waterfall the Stones of Heaven.

Heaven is testing their mental and physical strength, they say, by hurling an endless stream of “stones” down upon them in the form of the powerful waterfall.

“And the stones have a mysterious power,” a former pilgrim says to Kaim with a pained smile. He himself failed in this final austerity, he adds.

“Different Stones of Heaven fall on each person. It’s as if they can see into your heart.”

“What do you mean?” Kaim asks.

“The burdens you bore and the dreams you dreamed in the secular world appear to you one after another.”

In his own case, he says, what came to him first were the voices of women.

“The water plunging down into the basin of the falls began to sound like women’s voices. Sweet voices whispering in my ear, voices sobbing, voices moaning in a lover’s embrace… an incredible variety. And for better or worse I knew every single one of them. Some I was thrilled to hear again, while others I hated remembering.”

“Meaning, you’ve gotten yourself into a lot of trouble involving women?”

“I have indeed. Not to boast or anything, but that was one battlefield I knew better than anybody. I survived, but I made a lot of women cry, and there were a lot of them I loved. My whole purpose in undertaking the austerities was to put that life behind me, but the Stones of Heaven know what they’re doing. In the final, final test, they go after your greatest weakness. If you waver the slightest bit, you’ve had it. The water slams you down, and your austerities are over.”

The man feeds a stick of kindling into the campfire.

“And I’m not the only one,” he continues.

“One fellow heard the voice of the mother he hadn’t seen since he was a little boy; another heard the voice of his dead child.”

“Is it always voices?”

“I wish it were. If you hold up through the voices, the waterfall’s mist starts changing into the shapes of people. You might see somebody who you hated so much in the secular world that you wanted to kill him, or it might be some loan shark you had to go into hiding to get away from.

One little flinch and you’re done for.”

This particular austerity can be performed only once. There are no second chances.

Someone who has persevered for a whole day and night but who fails in the end has no choice but to return to the secular world in defeat, as this man did.

“Not that it was easy for me to get on my feet again once I was back there, either.”

The man chuckles and calls out to a young pilgrim. Or, more precisely, to a young man who was a pilgrim until a few moments ago, but who has just now dragged himself up to the lip of the basin in utter dejection.

“Hey, young fellow, the campfire’s over here. I’ve got liquor to warm up your insides, and some fresh-grilled meat. Get a little of that in your stomach and you’ll have the strength to make it down to the village.”

The man now makes his living as master of the teahouse by the waterfall. Of course, pilgrims undergoing austerities carry no money with them, but the man is not expecting to become rich doing this work.

For bodies chilled by long hours of pounding under the waterfall, he provides a warming fire, food and drink, and sometimes even money to tide them over when they first go down to the village. Payment can be made at any time. The men can bring him the money after they have started to take in earnings again from the jobs they find in the secular world.

He sets no date for repayment. He takes no IOUs. He says he is fine with that.

“Aren’t there some who don’t pay at all?” Kaim asks.

“Of course there are,” the man says matter-of-factly. “But I think my running this teahouse has another kind of discipline for myself.”

“Another kind of discipline?”

“That’s right. The Stones of Heaven will accept only the strongest pilgrims, the ones unperturbed by anything. The role I want to play is to accept the ones who were broken by the Stones of Heaven – the weak human beings. I want to go on accepting the weakest of the weak. The kind who not only succumb to the Stones of Heaven but who even fail to pay for their food and drink afterwards!”

“That is your kind of discipline?”

“Exactly. It makes for a hard living, that’s for sure. I thought I was prepared to deal with cheats and weaklings, but there are a lot more of those than I ever bargained for,” he declares with a hearty laugh.

But then he quickly turns serious and says, “To tell you the truth, I think of this less as a form of discipline than as a way to get even.”

“Get even? With whom?”

“With those gods or whatever they are that keep hurling down their Stones of Heaven.

Human beings are weak – shockingly so, in the eyes of a God. But, I think, and this is not just because of what happened to me, that being weak is the best thing about human beings. Weakness can make us cunning, but it can also make us kind. Weakness can torment us, but it can just as easily be our salvation.

Don’t you see? If the gods are hurling down their Stones of Heaven just to make people aware of their own weakness – just to make us savor our own powerlessness – then I’d just as soon drop my trousers and moon them. I’ll slap my bare butt and say to them,

‘I’m not like you! I’m not going to punish human beings for being weak! I accept them for what they are, weakness and all!'”

The man feeds a new piece of kindling to the fire and says with a shy shrug, “I guess I got carried away.”

Kaim smiles and shakes his head as if to say, “Not at all.”

“Tell me, though,” the man goes on. “I see you’re a traveller, but you don’t seem to be a pilgrim.”

“You’re right, I’m not,” Kaim says. “I was trying to cross over the pass and took the wrong road.”

“Well then, as long as you’re here, why not give the Stones of Heaven a try? It’ll be something to talk about.”

“No, thanks,” Kaim says, smiling.

“Whats the matter? Afraid they’re going to show you whatever it is that shakes you up?” The man smiles and nods. “Can’t say I blame you, though.”

The man is mistaken about Kaim. He is not the least bit afraid of such a thing.

What scares him is the opposite prospect. That of not being shaken up. Of encountering in himself a person unmoved by anything at all.

“Anyway, it would be suicide to jump into the waterfall without preperation.”

“How’s that?”

“It’s freezing cold, for one thing. There’s even colder water bubbling up from a spring in the basin. Even the most well-conditioned person has to be careful and take time to accustom himself to the low temperature. If you go in all at once, it can stop your heart.”

The man jerks his chin in the direction of the falls as if to say, “Look at them.”

Two new pilgrims are preparing themselves for the challenge of the Stones of Heaven.

The men appear to be brothers. The older one kneels at the edge of the basin, splashing himself and massaging the cold water into his skin from foot- to heart-level. The younger brother is too impatient for that. He wants to jump right under the falls. The elder brother cautions him and takes all the time he needs to accustom himself to the water’s coldness.

He exudes the quiet power of one who has withstood the most rigorous training.

“Aha,” the teahouse owner says to Kaim, smiling. “we’re in for a rare privilege. I think we are about to see the first successful attempt in a long while.”

“You can tell?” Kaim asks.

“You can if you’ve spent as much time here as I have. The winners and losers are decided before the men ever step under the falls.”

Having completed his meticulous preparations, the elder brother enters the basin. Even then, the steps he takes are slow and cautious.

The younger brother follows him in, kicking up a spray with every step.

“The younger one is hopeless,” says the man with a sigh, adding another stick of kindling to the fire.

“I’d better get the liquor ready now,” he mutters to himself.

The brothers stand side by side beneath the pounding waterfall. The Stones of Heaven rain down upon them.

As the man predicted, the elder brother, utterly calm, stands up to the onslaught of images sent by the Stones of Heaven.

Also as the man predicted, the younger brother yields to the Stones of Heaven and is beaten down into the basin of the waterfall.

But then something happens that goes far beyond what the man predicted.

Writhing in agony, the younger brother bobs helplessly in the basin, unable to rise himself.

He is drowning.

He tears at his own chest. His heart is failing. He was not fully prepared to enter the icy water.

“Help me, brother, please!”

But the elder brother doesn’t move. He remains under the waterfall in total concentration.

“Hey, what are you doing there? Hurry and help him!” the man yells, but the elder brother’s expression remains unchanged. He never flinches.

“He’s drowning! You can’t just leave him like that. He’ll die!”

The elder brother never moves.

He grits his teeth, keeps his eyes clamped shut, and shows no sign of moving out from under the waterfall, as if to declare, “This is it! This is the final test of the Stones of Heaven!”

The man screams at him, “You idiot!” and dives into the rolling basin in a rash effort to help the younger brother.

For the moment his untrained body hits the frigid water, the shock of it seizes his heart.

Still, he reaches out toward the drowning brother, who is sinking beneath the surface. A great shudder goes through him and with an enormous groan he takes hold of the young man’s wrist and pulls his limp body toward him.

He tries to return to the shore, but his strength gives out and he falls back into the water.

Next it is Kaim’s turn to dive into the basin beneath the falls. He takes hold of the two unconscious men and drags them toward the shore.

The tones of Heaven pour down on Kaim, and he is assaulted by one vision after another –

battlefields,

scenes from his wanderings,

shooting stars,

the climbing and sinking sun,

raging winds,

and countless deaths of those he has come to know on the road of his all-too-long life.

It will do you no good, he silently declares to the gods hurling the Stones of Heaven at him.

My heart remains unmoved. I have lived through a reality far crueler than any phantom you can show me.

Whether or not his life is a sign of his strength, he does not know. He will not boast of it, nor will he tell the tale to others.

He has, however, lived it; that much is certain. He has lived it through the years.

Kaim climbs onto the shore and lays the limp bodies of the teahouse master and the younger brother beside the fire.

As he warms himself, he thinks, The Gods who hurl the Stones of Heaven are inferior Gods.

If they could truly see into everything, they would never have been foolish enough to show Kaim scenes from his past. For what would disturb him most of all would be the unwelcome sight of moments from his own limitless future.

And if they were to ask him the simple question, “For what purpose were you born?” his knees would buckle in an instant.

The first to regain consciousness is the young pilgrim.

The teahouse master’s condition is critical. Kaim’s attempts to warm him and massage his clenched heart have little effect.

“Pull yourself together now! Look, we’ve got a fire here – the fire you built! Let it warm you!”

Kaim shouts into his ear until the man finally manages to force his eyes open a crack and move his purple lips.

“Is… is he… all right?”

“Sure, he’s fine, don’t worry.”

“Oh, good… good…”

“Pull yourself together, man!”

“Tell me, though… is strength the same as coldness?”

“Never mind! Stop talking!”

“Because if it’s true… if strength is coldness, I don’t want any part of it…”

The man gives Kaim a faint smile and closes his eyes.

He will never open them again.

Human beings are weak and fragile.

All it takes for a person to die is for a fist-sized organ to stop beating.

Human kindness, on the other hand, may derive from everyone’s profound awareness of the fragility of life.

Facing the teahouse master’s lifeless corpse, the younger brother hangs his head and cries. This weak man, defeated by the Stones of Heaven, sheds heartfelt tears for the man who saved his life.

His strong elder brother, meanwhile, is still being pounded by the waterfall, unfazed by the Stones of Heaven.

Surely his strength will be recognized by the gods, and he will bring his ascetic training to perfect completion.

Still, Kaim finds the tear-stained face of the younger brother beautiful in a way the stronger elder brother’s can never be, and he wishes that he himself could be moved like the younger man.

There was an unmatched nobility in the last smile of the teahouse master who gave up his life to save that of a complete stranger. Kaim wishes that he, too, could experience such feelings.

And what of my own face?

Living through a thousand years of life is not strength.

Yet, burdened with a life he cannot lose, will Kaim ever be able to change weakness into kindness?

This he cannot tell.

He can only live, unknowing.

He can only walk on.

He can only continue his journey.

Kaim looks at his reflection in the basin of the waterfall.

On the water’s heaving surface, he sees the trembling face of a lonely wanderer.

Thousand Years of Dreams Day 24: The Village Closest to Heaven


“The Village Closest to Heaven” is the Day 24 entry of this 33-day marathon of Shigematsu Kiyoshi’s short stories which make up the Kaim collection, He Who Journeys Eternity.

It’s a tale remembered by an immortal warrior who cannot die no matter if it’s natural causes or through war. He has experienced death in all its forms and yet he always remains the only one untouched by Death and remain to wander the world as the eternal warrior. It’s during one such stop in a village that he sees a people who doesn’t see death as something to fight against but something they’ve accepted as part of their natural order of things.

It’s this acceptance that has made each and every person in this village to live their lives to the fullest each and every day for no one knows if tomorrow their time will come for them to go to “heaven”. It’s a way of living that many nowadays would consider as crazy. Too much do people think that they can fight death and their focus and life has been consumed at doing just that they fail to live a full life. It’s only in the end when their struggle to fight off the inevitable has failed do they finally realized how much of their life they’ve wasted.

There’s a moral to this tale and that’s to live life to the fullest. Enjoy life and do it with those you love and care about. Worrying about things we never really have control over is a waste of the finite time we have.

The Village Closest to Heaven

In this village ringed by jagged mountains, the women give birth to many children.

Five or six is not uncommon. Just the other day, the wife of the village headman gave birth to her tenth child.

“And why do you think that is?” the young fellow asks the traveller, looking down at the snow-blanketed village.

Kaim cocks his head in search of an answer.

Meanwhile, the young man takes something like a piece of crystal candy from a small leather pouch. He pops it into his mouth and says with a laugh, “Because they die right away.”

“The children?”

“Uh-huh. Hardly anybody grows up to be an adult. Most kids die after five or six short summers. Look at the village headman’s wife; she’s lost seven kids already.”

Whether from a genetic problem or a disease endemic to the area, the people of this village have always lived short lives, he says, from way, way back.

“Now that you mention it,” says Kaim, “I haven’t seen any old people here.”

“See what I mean? A few decades ago, I’m told, one person lived to be fifty, but people say that’s the oldest anyone ever got in the whole history of this village.

This is why we give birth to lots of kids – give birth to a lot and lose a lot.

If just one of them lives into adulthood, though, the family line is saved and the village history continues. You see my point?”

The young man is sixteen, as is his wife.

Their first child is due to be born any day now – literally today or tomorrow.

The young man crunches down on the candy in his mouth. “Let’s get going,” he says, and around his wrists he winds the ropes he uses to pull the sled. He hasn’t loaded the sled yet, but dragging it up the steep, snow-covered road is hard work. This, he says, is why the pay is so good.

Only a few days earlier, he lost his good friend and fellow worker, who had been three years his senior. When Kaim happened along, the young man asked him if he would help by pushing the sled from behind until they cleared the pass. Kaim agreed, and they became an instant team.

Kaim circles around to the back of the sled and asks,

“You don’t have any animals to pull the sled?”

“Afraid not,” says the young man. “I know it’s strange, but our horses and cattle and donkeys all die young. You can spend a lot of money at the town market buying an animal, and it’ll keel over before it’s done a lick of work. Finally, the best way is for us humans to plow the fields and pull the sleds ourselves.”

The arms with which the young man himself is pulling the sled are massive, and he forges through the road’s snowy cover with powerful steps.

His fellow worker was stronger still, he says. “He taught me how to pull the sled, how to set rabbit traps, how to build a fire… all the skills I need to live, with all the love he would give to a kid brother. Before I knew it, he was gone.”

People here always die suddenly, he says. “They can be perfectly healthy one minute and drop dead the next. No time for suffering. Just like that. No time to call a doctor. Even if a doctor comes, there’s nothing he can do.”

“Did your friend die that way?”

“Uh-huh. He was shoveling the snow that piled up overnight, clearing the road, when he dropped dead. By the time we ran over to help him, he was gone. That’s how it always is. Always. That’s how they die. Grown-ups, kids… everyone.”

“And you, too, then…”

“I guess so. Nobody knows when the moment is coming. It might be decades from now, or it could be tomorrow…”

After this cool pronouncement, the young man turns to look at Kaim and, pointing to his own chests, says with a smile, “Or maybe even now.”

The smile is genuine, without a hint of despair or bitterness toward the cruelty of his fate.

“Aren’t you afraid to die?” Kaim starts to ask him but stops himself. It’s a stupid question, he decides, and one that he is not qualified to ask.

Where could a man burdened with eternal life find appropriate words to speak to a man burdened with the threat of sudden death?

Kaim and the young man keep dragging the sled up the steep mountain path. Their destination is the lake beyond the pass. The young man’s job calls for him to cut ice from the surface of the frozen lake and transport it back to the village.

“We in the village call the like the ‘Spring of Life’.

If you trace the source of the water that bubbles out of the ground here and there in the village, you will always wind up at the Spring of Life.”

Kaim nods silently.

“The ice from the Spring of Life takes forever to melt. That’s why, look, you can even do this…”

Again the young man takes a piece of the crystal candy – or, rather, ice – from his leather pouch and puts it in his mouth.

“It gives you energy. It’s indispensable when doing hard work or for pregnant women or infants. Just put a piece in your mouth and it gives you instant strength.”

The young man offers a piece to Kaim, who nods again in silence.

“We’re really not supposed to give any to outsiders, but you’re special ’cause I’m putting you to work. If I give it to you, though, I want you to help me load the ice on the sled. I can handle it by myself on the way back.”

Kaim silently accepts the ice from the young man, who assures him, “It tastes good, too,” and watches him, smiling. Kaim averts his gaze somewhat and puts the piece in his mouth.

The ice should be nothing but frozen water, but it has a mild sweetness.

Just as Kaim expected.

He spits it out when the young man is not looking.

Poison. I know that taste, thinks Kaim.

The village people are used to this taste, so they think nothing of it. Without a doubt, though, there is poison in the ice.

The long flow of time smoothes over the wounds inflicted by history. The permanently snow-capped peaks make people forget the existence of the wide world on the other side.

The young man calls this lake the Spring of Life, but those who lived far beyond the mountains, at the source of the river that feeds the lake, used to know it as the Pit of Death.

Long, long ago – several hundred years ago – the entire area around the river’s source was polluted with the poisonous metallic outflow from a mine.

The river was filled with dead fish floating belly-up, and the poisonous gas that rose like a mist from the ground killed both the earthbound animals and the birds in the sky.

The forests withered, and the lively town that had grown up with the development of the mine became a deserted ruin.

Nature took many years to recover, but the forests eventually turned green again, which attracted small animals and eventually the larger animals that hunted them.

People, however, never came back, and there was no one left to hand down the story of the tragedy that occurred at the river’s source deep in the mountains.

The only one who knows everything that happened is Kaim, the man who has lived a thousand years.

The young man stands by the frozen lake and takes a nice, satisfying stretch.

“You know,” he says to the traveller, “I sometimes think this village might be the closest one to Heaven in the whole world. Perhaps it’s because we are too close to Heaven that we’re all summoned by the gods early on. Don’t you think that might be true?”

Kaim says nothing in response to this.

Over many years, this lake has accumulated the metallic poison that flowed into it from upstream. And over many years the poison that infiltrated the soil has mingled with the ground water, bubbling up in the spring water with which the villagers slake their thirst.

No one knows the exact chemical makeup of the poison, but at least it does not cause the villagers to suffer until, at the last moment of their lives, the accumulated poison suddenly takes its toll. This may be its one fortunate aspect. On the other hand, this might simply make the misfortune it brings all the more conspicuous.

“Still,” the young man says as he saws off a piece of ice by the shore,

“I do hope that the children my wife and I have will be able to live longer lives – say, if we have five, at least one of them will live long enough to grow up and have kids. That way, for me, it would be like finding some meaning in having been born into this world. It was the same for my father and mother, and my grandparents. They all had lots of kids and mourned the loss of lots of kids but managed to raise one or two to adulthood before they died. That’s what gives our life meaning.”

He wipes the sweat from his brow and puts another piece of ice candy in his mouth.

If I were to tell him everything I know, thinks Kaim, if I were to tell him everything that had been buried in the darkness of history, and if he were to tell the other villagers, the tragedy might not have to be repeated.

The young man says, “When a baby is born here, they ring the village bell. Also when someone dies. The same for both; birth and death are like two sides of the same coin. So there’s no sadness when someone dies. Everybody sees them off with a smile and a wish; ‘You go ahead of us to Heaven and save a good spot there for us.’ Do you understand that sentiment?”

“I do,” says Kaim. “I do.”

“That’s how we’ve always done it; welcoming lots of new lives to the village and sending lots of lives off to Heaven. I’ve never been much of a student, so I don’t know exactly how to put this, but I kind of think maybe ‘the village closest to Heaven’ is a place where life and death are right next door to each other.”

The young man gives Kaim an embarrassed smile at the sound of his own words.

“Maybe it’s because I’m about to have a kid of my own that I’m starting to think about these complicated things.”

“No, that’s fine, I see exactly what you mean,” Kaim says.

The moment the words leave his mouth,

a bell sounds from the foot of the hill –

several long, slow rings.

“That’s it!” exclaims the young man. “My child has been born!”

He dips his head and says again, as if savoring the sound of his own words, “My child!”

While the bell is rung likewise for births and deaths, the young man says, the sound in each case is subtly different. When a young villager learns to tell the two apart, he or she is considered to be an adult.

“I hope this one lives a long time…” the young man says, choking with the flood of emotions that show on his face, but then he goes on as if to negate his own hopes for the future;

“Either way, whether it lives a long time or not, my child has now been born into this world. That’s all that matters. I’m so happy, so happy…”

Eyes full of tears, he turns a beatific smile on Kaim.

And then-

Still smiling, he collapses where he stands.

Kaim lays the young man’s corpse on the sled and returns to the village.

As the young man said, the villagers accept his death with the same smiles they had for the birth of his baby.

Death is not a time for sorrow. It simply marks whether one has been called to Heaven earlier or later.

The young man’s wife takes an ice candy from the leather pouch he has left behind and places it gently into the baby’s mouth.

“I want you to grow up to be strong and healthy,” she says.

“Daddy is saving a wonderful place for you up in Heaven. But go there slowly, slowly… and until you go to Heaven, I want you to grow up here in the village till you’re nice and big.”

Her words have the gentle tone of a lullaby.

Kaim says nothing. If he is to stand unflinchingly for what is right, his silence may be a crime. But, burdened with eternal life, Kaim knows how suspect the “right” can be. Throughout history, people have fought and wounded and killed each other in the name of what they declared to be “right”. By comparison, the look on the dead young man’s face is tranquility itself.

The “village closest to Heaven” is filled with happiness indeed.

The baby starts to cry, its loud wailing like a celebration of the beginning of it’s own life, however short that life is likely to be.

Kaim leaves the village with a smile on his face.

The village bell begins to peal, reverberating with utter clarity through the distant mountains as if to bestow a blessing on the young man who lived life to the fullest with neither resentment nor regret.

And when this too-long life of mine draws to a close,

Kaim thinks,

I’d like to be sent off with the sounds of bells like this if possible.

Because he knows that day will never come, Kaim walks on, never stopping, never looking back.

His long journey is far from over.