Shinta's family: Father, Hiro - 44, Mother, Aimi - 32, Oldest brother, Sotohiro - 15, Middle brother, Benjiro - 12, Shinta - 9
Prologue: On July 8, 1853 United States Commodore Matthew Perry pulled into Uraga Harbor with his fleet of menacing black ships and began firing their cannons near the city of Edo, forcing the heretofore isolated nation of Japan to open their ports to Western trade and their culture to Western influence, in the process shattering 300 years of peace which had been maintained by the Tokugawa Bakufu. Samurai clan rose against samurai clan, some wanting to return the Emperor to full power, others wanting to retain the Tokugawa's power. This split ultimately sparked a revolution that would be known as the Bakumatsu. It is here that this tale begins...
Aki (Present-day Hiroshima)
Ho the ground. Drop the seeds in carefully. Cover them with soil. Move to the next row. Repeat.
This was the life of a teeny-tiny boy with hair the color of the setting sun and eyes of the deepest, darkest violet. This little boy wore his two elder brothers' ragged handmedowns. Working alongside his father and brothers, he helped to plant fields full of vegetables and paddies of rice. Over and over again, in the relentless heat of the sun, they repeated their movements. Even in April, the repetitive motion under the sun made one so very hot! When the midday heat became too strong, the three older men shrugged out of their gi, exposing their bare skin to the wind and cooling themselves down. Seeing his father and brothers do this, the little redhead did likewise. On and on they worked, until they smelled the midday meal cooking in their little wooden farmhouse with its thatch roof.
"Midday dinner time, boys," announced Hiro, a man with wise brown eyes and black hair that already held some streaks of silver in it, even though he was only 44.
"Yes, Father," said the three boys, almost in unison as they picked up their farming implements and headed back to their little farmhouse where wife and mother Aimi was boiling rice and miso for them.
The little redhead, Shinta, moved as quickly as he could, always making certain to keep up with his father and two elder brothers, Sotohiro, who was the oldest at 15 and Benjiro, who was 12. Shinta was so very small for his nine New Years and felt like such a baby compared to his burly elder brothers who were already called -kun while he was still lovingly referred to as -chan, much to his chagrin.
Shinta had been born a few weeks prematurely and had been a very sickly baby, unable to eat any solid foods until he was about two New Years old. His parents had feared he would not survive. Miraculously, he had survived on only his mother's milk and had slowly started to gain the ability to tolerate a few bland solids. From that point, he had gained strength and stature slowly, but it was plain to all who saw him that he would never be tall or powerful like his father and brothers.
It was only just this season that Shinta had finally been permitted to leave his mother's side and work in the fields and paddies with his father and brothers. Because of this, Shinta never wanted to be regarded as weaker or slower than his brothers. Always, he worked hard to keep up and never complained when it got tiresome or painful!
The four of them stopped at the well to hoist up buckets of water and dump the cold liquid over themselves to rinse off the sweat and grime of the day. Once they were clean and fully clothed again, they stepped into the farmhouse, which was permeated by the scent of miso.
Aimi looked up and greeted her four men with a smile. Aimi was the parent from whom Shinta had inherited his complexion, with her long ruby colored hair and beautiful amethyst eyes. She was already ladling out the miso into their bowls at the low table. Everyone sat down on their cushion around the low table and smiled gratefully as wife and mother served the broth, which regretfully didn't have much by way of ingredients in it.
"Thanks for the food!" they all said unison before picking up their chopsticks and eating.
"Ka-go-me! Ka-go-me!" the little girls of the village chanted rhythmically as they danced in a circle, holding hands.
Nearby, the boys had pretend sword fights with long sticks. They thrust, slashed, parried and dodged. Sometimes, a boy would be "stabbed" or "slashed" and would fall over in a dramatic "death scene", clutching at his body in agony.
Unseen by them, a small redhead crouched in the bushes, watching them with longing in his eyes. Shinta knew better than to emerge and attempt to join the game. He remembered all too well what the results would be...
Huge eyes glowing at the prospect of playing with other children besides Ben-nii, Shinta approached a group of boys who were having a pretend sword fight.
"Can I play too?" he squeaked.
At the sound of the tiny voice, the other boys stopped and looked. When they saw the startling red hair on the little boy's head, their demeanor turned ugly. One of them lunged at Shinta with his stick, hitting the tiny boy on the shoulder and knocking him to the ground.
"Get outta here, Demon Boy!" he sneered.
Tears pricked Shinta's eyes as he clutched his throbbing shoulder.
"Blood haired freak, just like his mother," said another one.
Shinta's eyes blazed with rage and his jaw clenched. It was one thing for them to make fun of him, but unforgivable to talk about his mother! He launched himself headlong into the boy who had insulted Aimi, knocking him off his feet.
"Don't talk about my mom!" he screamed, scratching at the boy's face.
The attack didn't last long as the other two boys pried Shinta off their friend, threw him onto the ground and started hitting him with their sticks.
"Blood haired freak!"
"Your mom's a foreigner!"
Shinta curled up in a ball in a vain attempt to protect his rib cage as the boys continued to beat him with their sticks.
"Hey! Get off my brother!" came a familiar and very welcome voice.
"You bastards!" cried the other familiar voice.
"It's Sotohiro and Benjiro!" said one boy.
"Let's get outta here!" said another.
The third said nothing and took off with his friends with Benjiro in hot pursuit.
"You OK, Shin-chan?" asked Sotohiro as he knelt down and gently helped Shinta to his feet.
Shinta nodded, even as more tears coursed from his violet eyes. Angry with himself for being such a baby, Shinta dashed them away with his gi sleeve.
"What was that all about?" asked Sotohiro.
Shinta was silent, face to the ground.
Soto knelt down in front of Shinta so they were face to face and made the little boy look at him.
"You can tell me. I won't repeat what you say," he said gently.
At this coaxing, the dam finally broke.
"Th-they called me Demon Boy and said my hair looks like blood. They called mom a foreigner," Shinta choked out, shoulders shaking as a fresh wave of tears engulfed him.
Sotohiro sighed and gripped Shinta's shoulders.
"Listen, Shin-chan. Don't worry about what the other kids say. They're just idiots. Your hair and Mom's is just different for whatever reason, but that doesn't make her a foreigner or you a demon. Maybe your hair is red because you're meant to do something great in life, more than farming and beyond the borders of this village, or even the entire province," said Sotohiro.
Shinta sniffled and looked his brother in the eye.
"You really think so?" he asked softly.
"Who knows what the future holds?" said Sotohiro. "For now, just ignore those idiot boys and concentrate on getting big and strong. If you do that, you'll be able to fight back and they'll think twice about picking on you anymore."
Shinta nodded, tears replaced by a gleam of resolve.
"I will get stronger, Soto-nii. You can count on me!" he said, finally finding a smile.
"Good," said Sotohiro, patting Shinta on the shoulders.
Just then Benjiro returned, sporting a black eye and some bruises, but grinning from ear to ear.
"All taken care of, Shin-chan. Those idiots won't bother you again if they know what's good for 'em," he said.
"Thanks, Ben-nii," said Shinta with a smile.
With an inward sigh, Shinta turned his back on the other children and headed back to the farm house. As he walked, Shinta heard the voices of his brothers as they played a game of ball with each other. The dullness left his eyes and was replaced by a mischievous glitter as Shinta decided to sneak up on his brothers and surprise them.
Sotohiro bounced the ball toward Benjiro, who was ready to catch it. Suddenly, a tiny redhead jumped out of the bushes, snatched the ball in midair, landed gracefully and fell into a full run.
"Oro!" yelped Benjiro, taken completely off guard by his little brother's appearance.
"Shinta! You get back here!" called Sotohiro, falling in after the running redhead.
"You'll have to catch me!" called Shinta over his shoulder as he ran.
Shinta ran, easily keeping ahead of Soto and Ben, due to his slight weight. There were some advantages to being small, and this was the chief one. Shinta would never be able to lift heavy objects or wrestle someone as large as his brothers to the ground, but he could run like the wind and leave them in the dust.
Safely out of sight, but hearing his brothers' feet pounding over the ground in their vain effort to catch up with him, Shinta quickly shimmied up a tall oak tree and positioned himself so he was out of their sight. Then he waited for Sotohiro to come into view. Ah, there he was!
As soon as Shinta saw Soto, he chucked the ball at his brother, landing a direct hit on his head.
The two boys looked up into the tree and saw Shinta up in the branches, trying and failing to hold back his laughter. Presently, Shinta lost his grip and tumbled from the branch.
Benjiro quickly ran under and caught Shinta in his arms, succeeding in sending both of them tumbling to the ground in a tangle of laughter, limbs and swirly eyes.
Sotohiro leapt on his little brothers, easily holding them down and tickling up and down their ribs. Shinta and Ben found purchase on Soto's ribs as well, causing him to collapse on top of them.
Shinta was glad he had two such dependable big brothers. Even if the village children wanted nothing to do with him, as long as his brothers were there, he would never be alone.
Spring passed into summer. Every day was pretty much the same, rising at the crack of dawn and going into the fields and paddies to tend the growing vegetables and rice. Squatting on his heels and looking down at the tiny green shoots poking up to the sun, Shinta rejoiced in seeing the plants he had sown grow a little more each day, his smile warming the little plants just as much as the sun did.
However, there were many problems to contend with. Vermin such as hares and moles constantly raided the fields, requiring much vigil on the boys' part. Shinta, Benjiro and Sotohiro all had to take turns guarding their crops and keeping the pests out. Benjiro and Sotohiro had no qualms about killing any animal that strayed into their garden. Shinta was a different story.
It was Shinta's turn to watch the garden and things were not going well. It seemed the little animals knew the red-haired boy had a softer heart than his brothers. Whenever Shinta guarded, they took advantage and raided. Today, a beautiful black and white speckled bunny hopped into the garden and started raiding carrots.
"No, no, no!" Shinta cried at the rapacious rabbit. "You have to get outta here! If my father and brothers see you, they'll kill you. I'm supposed to..."
Shinta stopped. What was he doing, talking to a rabbit? Instead he picked up pebbles and lobbed them at the pretty creature. All it did was dodge them and stay at its raiding.
Seeing that the pebbles weren't working, Shinta cast them aside and charged at the rabbit in an attempt to scare it away.
"Shoo! Git!" he hollered, waving his arms over his head.
The speckled rabbit hopped a few steps away, but made no attempt to actually leave the garden. Shinta again charged the rabbit, trying to scare it away. Little by little, he succeeded in driving the speckled bunny out of their vegetables. After seeing the little creature hop slowly away, Shinta wiped his brow.
He then turned around to go back into the garden, only to see that the speckled bunny had, in fact, doubled back and hopped back into the garden while his back had been turned, and was now making short work of the radishes. Realizing that he would not be able to drive the rabbit off, Shinta picked up the ho, snuck up on the rabbit, swung down and bludgeoned it to death, tears streaming from his eyes as he did so. When he saw the lifeless, bloody carcass lying before him, Shinta dropped the ho, fell to his knees and sobbed into his sleeve.
Benjiro found his little brother sobbing over the dead rabbit.
"Hey, Shin-chan, quit crying like a girl," the elder brother sneered.
Shinta lowered his sleeve and glared at Benjiro. At the glare, Ben backed up a step, but quickly recovered.
"Look, Shin-chan, we have to grow these vegetables so we have enough to eat and pay our taxes. These vermin are nothing but a nuisance, not something to cry over," Ben tried to explain.
"They're just trying to survive, the same as us," said Shinta quietly, eyes lowered once again.
"Well, if it comes down to them or us, I choose us," said Ben finally. "Now gimme that rabbit!"
"No!" cried Shinta, grabbing the carcass, jumping up and running off in a crimson blur.
"Shinta!" called Benjiro, but Shinta was long gone.
Shinta ran from the village into the surrounding forest, which he knew like the back of his hand, oblivious to the rabbit's blood soaking into his green gi. From the time he could walk, he had explored every tree and clearing for as far as he could get. Only when Shinta was sure he was away from everyone did he stop.
Gently laying the carcass aside, Shinta knelt down and plunged his hands into the dirt of a little clear patch. He kept doing this until he had dug out a small pit. He then carefully lowered the rabbit into the pit. Next, he covered the body with the piled up soil. After that, he put some rocks over it to keep scavengers out.
Finished, he got to his feet and looked down at his hands and gi. They were covered in blood! The little redhead stood rooted to the spot, heart thundering in his chest, as the icky, sticky, viscous feeling implanted itself in his brain, the coppery tang assaulting his olfactory sense. Suddenly, he broke into a run.
Shinta ran until he came to the river, fell to his knees and plunged his hands into the running water. He scrubbed furiously until every last vestige of the rabbit's blood was removed from them. Only then did he pull his hands from the river and look them over. What a horrible feeling it was, to have blood on one's hands.
This done, Shinta yanked his gi out from his monpei, plunged it into the river and scrubbed it with the same vigor with which he had just scoured his hands. He was able to get most of the blood out, but a stain would always remain.
When he had his gi as clean as he could get it, Shinta wrung the excess water out of the garment, threw it over his shoulder and turned away from the river to head slowly for home. He doubled back a few times to make certain he hadn't been followed, as he wished to make sure that no one would ever find the speckled bunny's grave. He knew he would probably be in trouble for not giving the rabbit to his family for their fire, but he didn't care.
That night, Shinta was severely scolded for the rabbit and for getting blood on his gi and was made to go to bed without supper. Though his stomach gnawed with hunger, he didn't protest or cry. In his eyes, he had done the right thing, which was more important than a full stomach.
In the middle of the summer, a drought struck. The hot, white sun beat down day after day with nary a rain cloud in sight. The farmers did what they could to try to save their crops. With the wells dried up, they gathered water from the river, but even the water table of the river dropped too low to use. The babbler had become a trickler. There was simply no water!
Most of the plants that they had cultivated and tended parched and withered away. Shinta did his best to hide his tears as he looked forlornly down at the vegetables he had planted in the spring. Most were a loss. His soul felt as desolate as the ground before him.
Finally, summer ended, bringing with it the polychromatic leaves and cooler winds of autumn, along with the harvest. There wouldn't be much of a harvest this year due to the drought. However, the men worked hard to bring in what little remained from the dried up fields. Shinta worked hard alongside his father and brothers. They bent over and plucked out of the ground whatever had survived the drought and bundled it up to be carried in.
Sadly, even this would not sustain them. All of the rice and most of the vegetables the farmers grew went to the samurai and daimyo whose land they farmed, some of which they might be given back as charity if the daimyo felt merciful. Since more than half their crop had died in the droughty summer, all of this year's harvest was to be taken as tax. Since there was no rice, the village would be penalized doubly, even though there was nothing they could possibly have done.
Shinta, Benjiro and Sotohiro watched wide-eyed from the window as their parents regretfully gave up what little food their patch had yielded to the samurai who came to claim the tax. The samurai were, of course, highly displeased. Hiro and Aimi both prostrated themselves before the warriors, hoping for mercy. One of the samurai, a balding man with a thin, ugly mustache, ground the heel of his boot into Hiro's head as the farmer kept himself immobile and suffered the abuse.
It took all of Benjiro and Sotohiro's strength to keep Shinta from charging outside and throwing anything he could get his hands on at the samurai, who was now riding away on his horse, carrying the food they had grown with him.
"Lemme go!" cried Shinta, eyes blazing.
"Quit strugglin', Shin!" said Sotohiro through gritted teeth.
"If you try anything, that samurai'll kill you without a second thought," added Benjiro.
"See? Dad's OK. He's getting back up," pointed out Sotohiro.
Shinta stopped struggling and saw that indeed, Hiro was back on his feet and walking slowly back to the hut with Aimi at his side. Shinta's body went limp in his brothers' grip and they loosened their hold on him. Quite the next second, Shinta broke away from them and ran out the back entrance.
"Shinta!" called his brothers behind him, but Shinta had already gone too fast to hear.
Shinta ran and ran and ran until his nine-year-old legs could carry him no farther. Not looking where he was going, he tripped on an exposed tree root and fell face-first into the dirt. Pulling himself up to his hands and knees, he vaguely realized he was crying, but didn't care. Shinta knelt on the ground, angelic face caked with dirt and now smeared with tears as he sobbed in humiliation and rage.
How could these samurai come year after year and take all the rice the farmers grew and most of the other crops, leaving them with next to nothing and then be displeased when they couldn't produce enough food due to the drought? What gave them the right? The whole thing was so unjust; a pyramid where the Bakufu sat on top with the daimyo and samurai operating underneath them, and peasant farmers like his family being crushed at the very bottom.
There was nothing the peasants could do because the samurai were skilled warriors who wielded bows and arrows and most of all, swords. All the peasants were allowed were farming implements. What could a plowshare do against a sword?
'If the farmers had swords, we could protect our village from those samurai, and stop them from ever coming and taking our food again,' Shinta thought as he defiantly wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
He stopped and pondered, staring down at his tiny hand, already callused from his first months spent hard at work in the fields.
'But could a farmer even learn to wield a sword?' he thought. 'What makes my hands any different from a samurai's? Couldn't a farmer just as easily wield a sword if he was taught?'
Just then, Shinta was jarred from his thoughts by the noise and clatter of clopping hooves and jingling tack. That noise meant only one thing: Samurai! Shinta quickly moved from the dirt path and hid in the foliage. His eyes widened and sparked with rage as he recognized the samurai who had debased his father earlier.
Shinta knelt down and picked up a few pebbles that lay at his feet, stuffing them into his sleeve. He then scaled the maple tree quickly and easily, his gray/green clothes and bright red hair blending in perfectly with the dark brown bark and startling red leaves. Sitting as still as a statue, Shinta waited.
When the samurai came under the tree, the farmer’s son let loose a barrage of pebbles, pelting his target on the head. The samurai's horse gave a panicked whinny and reared up, throwing him off the saddle, and galloped away with the food still strapped to its back.
The ugly mustache samurai landed on his backside with a satisfying thud.
"Don't just sit there, idiot! Get my horse!" he screeched at his partner.
The other samurai spurred his horse and galloped after the wayward steed.
The mustache samurai now pulled himself to his feet and glared up into the tree. All he could see were bark and leaves.
"Must've been a squirrel. Bah!" said the samurai, going to meet his partner, who had now retrieved the horse and food.
Shinta glared after the samurai, but was careful to remain still and silent until the two men had ridden out of sight. Only then did he scale down the trunk and make his way home, his heart singing with the knowledge that he had avenged his father.
Autumn progressed slowly into winter. There was so little to eat. Shinta knew that survival in these lean times meant doing what must be done to survive. Although all the rice and vegetables were turned over to the samurai, the farmers knew how to scratch a living out of the land. Deep in the forests grew mushrooms that were ripe for the picking. These were harvested off the logs, stumps and trees and from the ground they grew out of. Hiro always strictly cautioned Shinta only to eat the mushrooms he, Aimi or the older brothers picked, as eating the wrong kinds could be deadly.
As the weather turned harsher, snow came in on the wind. With the snow came rumors of death in other villages. The adults spoke of it in hushed tones when they believed the children did not hear. Being almost 16 new years, Sotohiro was allowed to hear the adult conversation. His demeanor changed before Shinta and Ben's eyes. He became laconic and seemed anxious about something. When asked by the two younger boys, he dismissed their questions.
"It's an adult matter. You little kids mind your own business!" he said harshly.
Shinta and Ben didn't bother to ask again. Instead, they kept their mouths shut and their ears open. From what little they heard, they were able to piece together that farmers in other villages were disappearing. What they couldn't fathom was why.
Two weeks passed and the cold continued. Sotohiro continued to be anxious and distant, gravely worrying his little brothers.
One day, Hiro, Aimi and Sotohiro went to a village meeting, leaving Benjiro and Shinta at home. While they were alone, Benjiro and Shinta extrapolated on what could be causing the farmers in the villages to disappear.
"Maybe bears are eatin' 'em," posited Ben. "Things are tough all around and bears gotta eat too."
"Bears sleep in the winter," protested Shinta.
"Maybe... maybe the tengu swooped down from the mountains and carried some of 'em away!" suggested Ben, holding his hands up and wriggling his fingers menacingly.
"Stop it, Ben-nii," whined Shinta, quailing a bit.
"Ha ha! You're such a baby, Shin-chan," teased Ben without malice.
Shinta scowled, but didn't retaliate.
Just then the door slid open. The two boys looked up and saw Sotohiro come in. His cheeks were tinged with red as per usual from the cold, but something was very wrong. Ben and Shinta realized that he seemed to be limping! Neither boy dared ask their brother what was the matter given how gruff he had been of late.
Sotohiro didn't acknowledge them, but merely sat down at the fire pit, looking pale and tired. Finally, he looked at them and spoke up.
"I need water," he said.
Before Ben could react, Shinta got to his feet, grabbed one of the buckets and ran out to the river since they couldn't use the well in the winter. Shinta used a rock to break open a hole in the ice that covered the flowing water. He then dipped the bucket in. After he had water, he started back for the farmhouse.
The distant sound of a crow's hoarse "caw-caw" shattered the stillness of the snowy day. Shinta froze in his tracks, every bit of Ben's horrible theory crashing to the forefront of his mind. Was a tengu out there? Watching, waiting?
After a few moments with no further sounds, Shinta remembered his duty and hastened back to the farmhouse.
"About the hell time!" snapped Sotohiro, yanking the bucket from Shinta's grasp and downing the icy water greedily.
Shinta said nothing about his brother's brusqueness. Sotohiro finished half of it before he was satisfied and put the bucket aside. Benjiro took his turn to drink next, looking to Shinta to see if the younger boy wanted any. Shinta shook his head, as he was not thirsty. Benjiro then finished off the rest of the bucket.
Suddenly, Sotohiro jumped to his feet, ran to the entrance, tore the hikido open and vomited out onto the snow. He then slid the wooden panel closed and staggered back in, looking pale and haggard.
"Soto-nii?" asked Shinta, a catch in his voice.
"Futon!" demanded Soto.
Shinta and Ben were on their feet in an instant, unrolling the futon the three of them shared. Soto didn't bother to thank them as he collapsed into the futon and promptly fell asleep. Shinta and Ben stared at each other, eyes filled with fear.
"I think Soto-nii's sick," whispered Ben.
"I wonder with what," responded Shinta.
"I dunno. I hope Mom and Dad come back soon," said Ben.
Shinta could only nod.
By the time Hiro and Aimi returned, their faces looking pale and drawn with worry, things had gone from bad to worse. Sotohiro hadn't awakened or even moved during this entire time and now Benjiro was displaying the same symptoms. First he had started having leg cramps, then he too had thrown up. Next he had run several times to the outhouse with diarrhea.
Now, Ben lay in the futon next to Soto, pale and sick. Shinta had done his best to care for both brothers this entire time, but was beyond glad when their parents returned.
At once, Aimi was at the boys' side. Having just come from discussing this with the other farmers, they recognized the symptoms: cholera! Farmers all around the province had been dropping like flies, and now their two eldest seemed to have it.
Aimi and Hiro looked at each other. Something passed between them with no speech. Wordlessly, Aimi rose to her feet, walked over to where a wide-eyed Shinta was standing, picked him up in her arms and carried him out of the farmhouse while Hiro went to work over the boys.
"Mom?" asked Shinta.
"No talk," said Aimi quietly, but firmly.
Shinta spoke no more, but shivered in his mother's arms. Something was wrong and of course, no one would tell him anything!
Only much later did Aimi return to the house with Shinta. Hiro sat by the fire pit, his face looking even more drawn and haggard than when they had come home. Shinta thought he saw tear tracks. He also noticed the very palpable absence of his brothers. He wanted to cry and scream, to demand that his parents tell him where Soto and Ben had gone.
Instead, Shinta said nothing. He sat between his parents before the fire, this awful gnawing feeling in his stomach. People were disappearing, going away forever. Trying to blink away tears, Shinta realized he would never see his brothers again. In the distance, he heard the "caw-caw" of a crow on the wind.
Shinta cowered in the corner of his family's small farmhouse. In the middle of the room, in their futon, his parents lay gasping for breath. One week ago, Sotohiro and Benjiro had died within a day of each other and had been cremated by their father. Not long after, Hiro and Aimi themselves had started displaying the same symptoms.
Shinta had thus far escaped any symptoms of the ghastly disease. As the only able-bodied one in his family, Shinta had been dutifully caring for both parents, keeping his expression neutral the entire time. Only at night, under cover of darkness, had Shinta allowed his tears to flow.
Hiro and Aimi's hoarse breathing permeated every corner of the house, grating on Shinta's frazzled nerves. He held his hands over his ears, trying to block it out, to no avail. The night dragged on interminably.
The sun was just up in the horizon, its light penetrating through the slatted window of the farmhouse. Moving slowly due to yet another sleepless night, Shinta dragged himself to his feet and began to stumble toward the buckets to draw water for his parents. Just as soon as he had started, he stopped and listened. Something was wrong, something was missing. For the past week, his parents' rattling, labored breathing had filled the house day and night. Now as he stood there, Shinta realized that the torturous sound had fallen silent.
Shinta's eyes traveled to his parents' futon. They lay still and looked very peaceful, too still and peaceful. Their chests didn't rise and fall as they struggled for breath and their brows were relaxed instead of contorted with pain as they had been all week.
Shinta felt his legs buckle underneath him and quickly scooted back against the wall to keep from collapsing. Eyes fixed on his still parents, he sank slowly down to the floor, leaning his weight against the wall. He drew his knees up to his forehead, wrapping his arms around them and closed his eyes. It was over. At long last, it was over. His brothers and parents weren't suffering anymore. As warm tears slipped silently and unheeded down his cheeks, Shinta rejoiced in their release.
Shinta was startled awake by the sound of the hikido being slid roughly open. Into the house stepped two samurai, the very two who had mistreated his father months before. Before the small boy could react, the ugly mustache samurai grabbed him by the arm and forced him to his feet. Shinta struggled with all his might as the samurai dragged him out into the frosty air.
Ignoring Shinta's struggling, the samurai shoved him inside a wagon and slammed the barred door shut. Shinta shook the bars, but to no avail. His eyes widened in horror when he saw men approaching his family's home with lit torches. What were they doing?
"Noooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!" he screamed from the back of the wagon, right arm reaching out between the bars, as he watched them place the torches at the base of each of the house's four walls.
The wooden house instantly ignited, flames shooting up the walls to the thatch roof, which immediately combusted. Shinta looked on in horror as the home he had grown up in burned to the ground, his parents' bodies still within its walls. Realizing there was nothing he could do, Shinta slumped over, all his energy spent.
He barely even noticed the jolt the wagon gave as it started forward, carrying him away from his village forever. He didn't bother to look back, knowing there would be no one to wave goodbye to him.
Ushio Hayama was a 43-year-old slave trader with plenty of money and a sadistic enjoyment of his profession. He had recently made a purchase: a single child from a poor farming village that had been decimated by cholera over the winter. He now stood watching as the struggling child was dragged toward him by his two subordinates, Kazuma and Neishi, for inspection. His eyes widened at the sight of the boy's unusual complexion and slight build.
"Bring him into my house," Ushio ordered.
They led the struggling boy into Ushio's private hut which was lit and warmed only by a fire pit in the middle of the floor.
Ushio had never seen such a beautiful child. He wanted to see if the boy's body was as beautiful as his face.
"Strip him," he said, voice devoid of emotion.
Kazuma grabbed the small boy and began tugging at his gi and monpei. The little boy struggled and bit him on the thumb. The burly man let out a muffled swear and cuffed the redhead in the ear, knocking the boy over.
"Leave a mark and you'll lose that hand," threatened Ushio.
"A thousand pardons, Ushio-dono," said Kazuma with a nervous bow.
"Neishi, strip him," ordered Ushio.
After Kazuma yanked the boy, who was still dizzy from being hit in the ear, to his feet, Neishi pulled the boy's arms from his gi, then untied his obi and yanked his monpei and fundoshi down to his ankles.
Ushio approached the boy, who even in the hut with the fire burning, was shivering. His eyes darted up and down the child's body. He was very small and frail, looking to be no more than five or six years old. His skin was pale, a sign of undernourishment and poverty. His whole build was of an ineffable delicacy. He definitely was unfit for regular labor.
Ushio lifted the little boy's chin up and looked at his face. Using his thumb and index finger, he forced both of the boy's eyes wide open and looked in them. Never had he seen such unusual eyes before. Though they were still clouded over by dizziness and pain, Ushio could see they held a strong spirit in them. That spirit would be fun to break.
"Open your mouth," Ushio commanded.
When the boy didn't obey, Ushio slapped him on the left cheek, hard but not enough to leave a mark.
"Open your mouth," he said again, harsher this time.
The boy slowly opened his mouth. Ushio grabbed a handful of red hair and forced the slave's head back so he could see. He looked over the boy's teeth and overall condition of his mouth. Yes, the boy had all his teeth, which was a good sign. Children from peasant villages were often missing teeth due to poor nutrition. He also noted that there were no open sores in the slave's mouth.
With his fingertips, he felt around the boy's chest and stomach, checking his overall condition. Cold fingertips traveled lower, touching where they had no business to.
Ushio traced his fingertips over the boy's prominent spine. The bones stuck out, but that was to be expected of a peasant boy.
Finally, the boy was examined for signs of breeching.
As Ushio withdrew his finger, he looked the slave over thoughtfully. Despite being underweight, the boy was over-all healthy. He would never be strong enough for the hard work the other slaves were put through. Ushio had something very different in mind for this young boy with the long red hair and violet eyes so unlike those of any other child.
"Alright, get your clothes back on before you freeze to death," he commanded sharply.
The peasant boy quickly did as he was told, keeping his eyes to the ground the whole time.
"What's your name, boy?" Ushio asked when the child was clothed again.
"Your name?" in a harsher tone.
"Sh-Shinta," said the boy almost in a whisper.
"I didn't hear you," said Ushio, kneeling down so that he was face-to-face with the slave.
"Shinta," said the boy, fighting back his tears.
"A perfect name for such a little treasure," said Ushio, caressing the boy's left cheek that he had just slapped a moment ago.
Rising up, he turned his attention to the servants.
"He's unfit for manual labor. Instead we'll take him with us to Kyoto and sell him to one of the tea houses or brothels. This means that he is not to be defiled. Understand?" said Ushio with a sharp glare.
The servants gulped and nodded.
"Lock him in with the others," commanded the slaver.
"Yes, sir," said Kazuma, grabbing Shinta by the arm and dragging the boy off.
Shinta was thrust into the room and the hikido was slid shut and locked. Shinta tried to pry it open, but to no avail. Looking around, he realized he wasn't alone, there were about seven other children in the room, all as frightened and lost as he was. Shinta smiled bravely at them.
"Hello. My name is Shinta," he said in a dropped voice.
"Stay away!" hissed one of the boys. "A blood haired demon like you will only bring more bad luck on us!"
"Stay on the other side of the room!"
Shinta lowered his head to conceal the tears pricking at his eyelids. He should have realized that would be their reaction. The children of his old village, with the exception of his brothers, had never wanted anything to do with him either. With a heavy sigh, Shinta sat down against the wall and buried his face in his arms.
What would happen to him now?
Shinta tossed and turned, but just couldn't get to sleep. The memory of being stripped, slapped and examined by those men played over and over in his mind's eye. He had never been treated in such a shocking manner in all his ten New Years.
Shinta was startled from his thoughts by the sound of the lock being undone and the hikido being slid open; Kazuma and Neishi! Shinta closed his eyes and feigned sleep, hoping against hope that they would go away. They did not.
Suddenly, Shinta felt Kazuma's hands on his arms, yanking him up.
"No!" Shinta yelped.
He was answered by a stunning blow between his shoulder blades, which knocked the wind out of him. As Kazuma and Neishi dragged him from the room, Shinta looked over his shoulder to the other children, throwing a pleading glance their way. They all sat huddled in the other side of the room, their faces turned away. Why would no one come to his aid?
Even though he knew he couldn't hope to beat the two burly men, Shinta didn't intend to make things easy for them. He let his legs collapse underneath him, turning his body into a dead weight. Kazuma and Neishi, nothing daunted, yanked the boy up by the arms and carried him to Ushio's quarters.
"Well, well, here's my little angel," said Ushio with an oily smile.
He nodded to Kazuma and Neishi, who dragged the boy over to Ushio's futon and flopped him down roughly on his back, holding him immobile all the while.
Shinta struggled in vain as Kazuma began tugging at his monpei tie. Before he could do anything, he felt his wrists being grasped and hand covering his mouth. He tried to bite the hand, but his teeth could find no purchase in the flesh. Shinta struggled helplessly as he looked up into the faces of Ushio, Kazuma and Neishi leering down at him. He couldn't fight back, he couldn't bite them, he couldn't even scream for help.
His mind screamed as he felt their clammy hands touch his flesh.
For the rest of the winter, Shinta was kept around Ushio's house to do work during the day. Night was a different nightmare altogether. Every night, it seemed like either Kazuma and Neishi or Ushio, or even all three would take him from the room and make the night a living hell for the small boy. Shinta learned very quickly that fighting back only brought pain, so it was better to just be still and take it.
Thankfully, since Shinta was to be sold, he was never defiled, but the feeling of their clammy hands and mouths against his skin and the taste of their essence in his mouth were enough to forever imprint a fear of intimate touching in the boy's mind.
Shinta no longer tried to approach the other children that shared the room with him. They simply wanted nothing to do with him.
Over the winter, the other children were sold off, one by one. Even though they had shunned him, Shinta couldn't help feeling compassion for them as he saw the look of heartbroken resignation in their faces as they were taken away, until only he was left.
One morning, Shinta was awakened by the sound of the hikido being slid open. As the boy sat up, waiting for Kazuma or Neishi to lead him outside for breakfast, instead he saw three girls of about 17 or 18 years step into the room. The wooden door slid shut behind them. They looked as lost and frightened as he had felt all winter.
Shinta watched as the three girls sat on the floor, desperately clinging to each other, seeming not even to notice him. Shinta swallowed and cleared his throat. He would try, one last time, to make a friend.
"Hello..." he ventured timidly.
Startled, the three girls turned and looked at him. When they saw that he was but a tiny boy, they relaxed a bit.
"Hello..." returned one, who looked to be the oldest of the three.
"My name is Shinta," said the little boy with a polite bow of his head.
The three girls hesitantly smiled.
"My name is Kasumi," said the eldest girl.
"It's good to know all of you," said Shinta quietly.
"How long have you been here?" asked Sakura.
"About two months. Everyone in my village died of cholera, except me. The daimyo sold me into slavery to get rid of me," said Shinta softly.
"I'm sorry, little one," said Akane softly.
"Thank you," returned Shinta.
Shinta's cheeks tinged pink as the three girls suddenly sat around him and cocooned him protectively in their arms. A very soft "oro" fell from his lips.
The four of them stayed that way for the next few hours. Shinta fell asleep in the warmth and protection of the girls' arms, feeling safe for the first time since his parents' deaths.
Shinta's eyes snapped open as the lock on the hikido was undone and the door slid open to reveal Kazuma and Neishi.
"On your feet! Food time!"
Shinta and the three girls obediently rose to their feet and were led out into the early spring air to the food line where the rest of the slaves awaited their breakfast.
The "breakfast" of stale natto was ladled out to everyone, who received it wordlessly and thanklessly. Shinta hated the sour, stale natto, but knew he had to be grateful to get anything. His stomach gnawed and cramped with hunger. However, he didn’t move to pick up his chopsticks, instead keeping his eyes warily on the two slavers.
Kasumi went to pick up her chopsticks. Shinta quickly reached out and stayed her hand.
"Don't!" he whispered in alarm. "If you eat before Kazuma and Neishi say you can, they’ll beat on you."
"Oh, thank you, Shin-chan!" whispered Kasumi in alarm as she quickly retracted her hand.
Shinta breathed a sigh of relief.
The slaves watched as Kazuma and Neishi sat down to polish their katana and waited a few moments before finally giving the command.
Only then did the slaves tuck into their food.
"Here, Shinta," whispered Akane as she moved some of the natto from her plate to Shinta's, "you can have some of mine."
"Are you sure?" whispered Shinta.
"Positive," whispered Akane back to him.
"Thank you," said Shinta softly, taking a bite of his newly laden plate.
"You're welcome," returned the girl.
"Take some of mine, Kasu-nee," said Sakura, pushing some of her natto onto her sister's plate.
"Thank you, little sister," smiled Kasumi.
The girls smiled and giggled softly at the sight of the little boy whose cheeks were now puffed out with natto. A blush tinged those cheeks as Shinta looked down and concentrated on eating his breakfast. As he ate, Shinta cast glances at the three girls quietly eating around him. They were so lovely and had such nice clothes compared to the other slaves. Surely, they couldn't have come from the same background as he! Presently, he made bold to ask them.
"Kasumi-san, how did the three of you end up here?" he inquired softly.
The three girls looked sad for a second.
"You needn't tell me if you don't want to," said Shinta quickly, afraid of having upset his new friends.
"No, that's alright, Shin-chan," whispered Sakura. "The daimyo took us from our parents and sold us into slavery because they couldn't pay their debt."
Shinta's face was stricken at this answer and he gripped his chopsticks hard. What a system they lived under! It was one thing for a little peasant boy to be sold into slavery after the deaths of his parents; it was quite another for these three beautiful girls to be torn from their family simply because they couldn't pay some stupid debts. These were human lives!
Shinta wasn't even aware of his vice like grip on his chopsticks until he felt the bamboo give and heard the snap. The now useless chopsticks fell to the ground in splinters, Shinta looking down indifferently.
"Here, Shin-chan, borrow mine. I'm not hungry anymore," said Kasumi, proffering her chopsticks to Shinta.
"Are you sure?" asked Shinta.
"Very," she said, eying the remaining natto.
"Thank you," said Shinta softly, taking the chopsticks and unenthusiastically eating his natto.
Soon, breakfast was over and the slavers collected the plates and chopsticks from the slaves. Upon coming to Shinta and Kasumi, Neishi saw that hers were missing.
"Where are your chopsticks, bitch?" asked Neishi.
"No! I..." Shinta started to protest, but was silenced by Sakura's hand over his mouth.
"Forgive me, sir," said Kasumi, lowering her head. "I lost them."
Kasumi went flying to the ground.
"What's going on here?" came Ushio's voice as he arrived on the scene, attracted by the commotion.
"Ushio-dono, this slave bitch lost her chopsticks," said Kazuma.
"I see," said Ushio, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "We can't have these slaves wasting our property. Chastise her properly, but be certain not to mark her."
"Yes, Ushio-dono," said Kazuma.
Neishi licked his lips and his beady eyes gleamed.
Akane and Sakura held Shinta still as the two slavers led Kasumi away to be "chastened". Shinta struggled and tried to cry out, but the girls wouldn't let him go and Sakura's hand remained fast over his mouth. His eyes turned to Ushio, who stood over them, watching the entire scene indifferently.
Presently, Ushio turned his attention to the three before him and ordered them to their feet, then herded them back toward his house. As they went, Shinta looked back over his shoulder and saw in the distance the girl taking the punishment that should have been his. A single tear rolled down his cheek as they walked away, the crack of the whip and the sound of a girl crying echoing in his ears.
'I'm the one that should be punished! Why is Kasumi-san doing this?' he thought heartbrokenly, Sakura's hand still firmly over his mouth to prevent him from telling the slavers.
It always seemed like others were suffering in his place and he could do nothing to stop it.
Back in the cell, Shinta sat mutely between Akane and Sakura as they caressed him. He refused to look up from the floor.
"This is what Kasumi chose to do, Shin-chan," said Sakura softly.
"It will be alright. You'll see," soothed Akane.
Just then, the lock was unlatched, the hikido slid open and Kasumi was thrust into the room by the slavers, who were still grinning sadistically. Her sisters rushed over to her side and put her arms around their shoulders to help her sit up. Shinta looked aghast at how pale, sweaty and tear-stained she was.
"Kasumi-san, why?" he asked in a broken voice, tears welling in his eyes again.
"No tears, Shin-chan," admonished Kasumi between gasps as her sisters propped her against the wall. "I have no regrets and would do it again in a second."
"I don't understand," replied Shinta, dashing at the tears with the back of his sleeve.
"You don't need to. Come now. Dry your tears and sit with us. Let us talk of pleasant things," said Kasumi, reaching stiffly up to pull the little boy to her heart.
The three sisters settled the little boy between them and held him close. Despite his anxiety over what had happened, Shinta's eyelids grew heavier and heavier and he finally fell asleep, lulled by the warmth of the girls' embrace.
In the afternoon, Shinta was again startled awake by the sound of the hikido being forced open. In stepped his two least favorite people. They immediately began barking orders at the small boy and three girls.
"On your feet, you dogs! We're moving out!"
Shinta suddenly felt very frightened. Where were they going? Were they to be sold at long last? Just then, he felt Kasumi and Akane's gentle hands take each of his with Sakura right behind them.
"Stay with us, Shinta. It will be alright," said Kasumi softly.
Shinta smiled up at his three new friends and followed them as they all got into line to move out. As the caravan set out, Shinta looked over his shoulder and saw Ushio mounted on a horse, riding to the front to guide his chattel down the road. A spark of anger rose in his eyes at the man who had bought and sold him and torn the three girls from their parents. Ushio's face had been burned forever in his mind's eye as the face of evil.
Upon feeling Kasumi's gentle squeeze on his hand, Shinta looked up and smiled at his friends, all three of whom returned the smile gently. As long as he could stay with his three new friends, he knew everything would be alright.