Saturday, June 28, 2008

Fiction: Breath

His sandals turn wet with the morning dew as he walks. The morning air is cold; it stings at his face with a sharpness that can penetrate bundled silk.

He stops, and looks at the fields before him. The tall grass grows sparsely, disturbed by the blood and footfalls of the men who had invaded their ranks many weeks ago.

In the distance, a thin sliver of sunlight slices across the sky. He stands still, waiting for a moment of perfect silence, and watching the amethyst skies.


“Get up,” he says, chiding his fallen student.

The boy sits up, dazed. There is a broken bokken in the boy’s hand, and his expression clearly shows that the blow came too quickly for him to remember.

“Back to your seat,” he tells the boy.

The student stands, bows, and then rejoins the rest of his class - six and ten young men and women sitting upon the wooden floor in a wide circle. There are not a few nervous smiles among them.

He straightens first his robes and then his posture, sliding his unmarred wooden sword into his obi. “Your center,” he repeats crisply, “is where your entire self converges. You must maintain your balance there. Your self, and your sword – everything must be one when you strike.”

He smiles, white teeth glinting the daylight. “Who is next?”

“I am, sensei.” A girl rises from somewhere near the front of the gathering. She is young and beautiful, with shining black hair and a smile that would rival Amaterasu’s.

“Shoko,” he says.

She bows deeply. “If I may, sensei,” she asks.

He bows in response, indicating his approval. In a few moments, he faces her in the center of the gathering, their wooden swords both drawn and ready.

Each watches the other intently. There is no sound. Silence itself dares not utter a word.

There is a slight change in the breeze, and a sudden blur of motion.

There is a single muffled huff as he lands on the floor and the air forces its way out of his lungs.

She stands above him, her sword in the finishing position of the first technique. There is only the expression of supreme concentration on her face.

He glances around, sluggish and somehow dazed. Then he notices that the sheer force of her blow has broken his wooden sword.

He blinks once, and then smiles.

She begins to smile as well, but then remembers herself at the last moment. She begins to bow.

He holds up a hand to stop her. She pauses, confused expression beginning to form on her face.

Slowly, he stands and bows deeply in her direction.

A number of his students smile, despite themselves. She does not. She frowns instead, knowing somewhere deep inside that such a thing should not be.

“I thank you, sensei,” she says nonetheless, returning the gesture.

“No,” he answers, “thank you, Shoko-gakusei.”


The wind toys with the tips of the tall grass, scattering their formation every which way. It makes no sound.

He is alone. He knows that it is just him, the wind, the grass, and his memories.

He looks into the distance, eyes neither bending nor blinking. Sixty years has given him the expression of steel.

He places one hand on the pommel of his katana, as if preparing to strike against some unseen enemy. Then he lets it slide further downward, feeling the smooth wood of the saya, and the point where katana and wakizashi cross.

For a single moment, he observes the horizon, etching the image of sky, earth and clouds into the corners of his mind.

Above him, Lady Sun watches as well.


“Still,” he warns, watching her closely, “not tense. Still yourself.”

She stands there, as still as the waters of a lake when there is no wind. Her face is iron; her expression is steel.

He taps her – sharply – against the side, startling some of the less attentive students. She does not move, save for a single moment when she closes her

“You are tense,” he announces. “Your tension will not aid you. Know how even the most stalwart of trees fall to the storm.”

He pauses, watching her intently.

Slowly, he walks up to her, bending down slightly to adjust to her shorter frame and looking directly into her eyes.


He draws back, still watching her.

There is a moment’s hesitation, and then a single long breath.


She inhales once more, quickly releasing her breath back into the atmosphere of the closed courtyard.


She breathes again, this time more relaxed and assured. Her expression does not change.

“What do you keep inside of you?” he asks, “Fear?”

She breathes.


She breathes.


She breathes once more.

He draws himself up slightly, looking at the sea of faces under his care. “Fear, want and regret,” he whispers. “The three sins.”

She stands still, breathing slowly and regularly.

“Know this,” he says. “A samurai does not know fear. A samurai does not know desire.”

He looks at her once more, content at the results of the day’s teaching.

“And greatest of all, a samurai does not know regret. Remember that, when you stand facing your enemy.”


The field still holds the scent of war - love and hate, passion and distraction, honor and glory, all at the same time.

He can hear the clashing of blades and the rustling of battered armor. He can hear the shouts of triumph and the screams of agony.

He continues looking into the distance, into the eyes of the first rays of sunlight.


“Glory to the clan,” he whispers, watching them charge.

They are resplendent in their golden armor. His former students now wield blades of the finest steel, as they dive into the thickest part of the fighting. His place is not among them; He can only watch, and hope that they had learned his teachings well.

She breaks from the throng, screaming her war cry and plunging to the forefront. A second division smashes into the front lines, throwing the enemy into disarray, and he loses sight of her.

By now, only half of them would be left. The better half.

They themselves knew. It was an honor and a privilege to know.

Only the unworthy died.

He sees her again, hair still shining in the sunlight, despite armor covered in sticky blood. She is half-blinded by the blood that spills over her eyes, yet she still fights with the ferocity of a true warrior.

He does not blink as he sees the enemy samurai strike at her from behind, sending his blade tearing through her body.

He does not weep as she falls, lost among the sea of new corpses.

“Destiny,” he whispers.

Destiny. Yes, Destiny.

Only the unworthy died.


He softens, and looks upon the miles of tall grass. He stands there, a solitary figure on an empty battlefield.


His expression is steel. Hers had been steel as well.

He pauses in slow meditation, feeling the soft breeze move across his robes.

Fear. Want. Regret.

He remembers.

Slowly, he looks over the place where she died, and begins to breathe.


Sean said...

I originally wrote this story in 2004, as an attempt to capture some of the emotion of a fictional setting. It might not look like it, but it's actually a piece of fan fiction - for Legend of the Five Rings, to be precise.

So far, it has received positive reactions from a couple of writing groups. However, until this post, I have never really brought it out before an open audience. I've tightened some of the outdated phrasing and adjusted some of the ambiguous expressions, so I hope that this is now readable as is.

banzai cat said...

Not bad, sean. Not bad at all. There's something to be said about certain subgenres that requires an almost-zen like style of writing.

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: Thanks. Strangely, this is the third time I've heard the "almost-zen" comment about this story. It must be the setting...

banzai cat said...

Not necessarily. I'm speaking from my own experience here but most of the time when I write, I write in white heat: the keyboards drumming at the speed of light. The writing of this piece seems to convey a certain feeling of... restraint. But that's just my empathic sense from the writing. ;-)

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: The narrative restraint was completely deliberate, and meant to be within theme. For the record, I've been waiting for somebody to observe that for the last four years. :)

banzai cat said...

My point exactly. As for stating the obvious, hey, give me a break, I only read this piece recently. :-D