It was in the second summer of the Shogunate of Tokugawa, the summer of the rains, when the little girl called Yurimaru was taken. An interval of woe, when the grain harvest was devastated by the great winds and waters, and the people ate grass and dogs and children to survive. The Daimyo of Yurimaru’s prefecture was a man of great justice and kindness called Lord Mitsui. When he heard of the disappearance of Yurimaru, Lord Mitsui sent horsemen and harbingers far and wide to offer a large reward for the head of the man who took her. Lord Mitsui did this even though Yurimaru was a person of low birth and little importance. So great was the justice and kindness of Lord Mitsui.
The East West Road cuts a straggling horizontal line through the island of Hokkaido. This stretch is a muddy scar of black clay connecting a string of villages - poor places, where few live and even fewer stop. For all its quietness, there are still a few people trudging along it, hurrying through this featureless backwater, trying to push on to more salubrious surroundings before sunset. The ceaseless rain churns the mud into a quagmire six inches deep, a sucking trench of ooze that clutches at the feet of travellers and slows their progress to a crawl. Heading west against the usual flow of traffic, is a clutch of despondent farm labourers plastered in mud and carrying clean tools over their shoulders. As they plod up the road, which here is little more than a narrow track, they pass a jaunty old man who walks with that strange, bobbing step of one who never locks his knees. He is dressed like a merchant. His peasant jacket is made of bright blue silk embroidered with cart wheels, and his trousers are of finest black cotton now befouled to the thigh with black mud. He carries no wares, and there is no train of pack animals following him. There is only a bare, six foot wooden staff propped at a jaunty angle over his shoulder. He calls out a cheerful greeting as the little knot of labourers streams past and around him. They return it with surly nods. Struggling along in the old man’s wake is a girl no more than twelve. She has a koto in a bag - a travelling musician. The old man calls over his shoulder to her.
“Beautiful girl! Come and be my friend and I will pay you! Then, when you grow up, you can be my wife!”
The girl ignores him.
Some way behind them is another sort of man entirely. He is shabby, his hakama and haori are frayed and worn, his hair bound in a loose top knot. Only his swords, the long katana and short wakizashi, have the look of love and care. They are magnificent pieces, sheathed in gleaming black enamel, corded with yellow silk, hilted with gold jewels and bright silk bindings. The farm labourers walk a long way off to the side of the road and wait with bowed heads until he passes. He ignores them. His eyes are fixed straight ahead, his feet moving with steady, patient regularity - left foot, right foot, and onwards, without a moment’s pause, sure and stable even in the clinging, slippery clay.
The old man follows one of the few bends in the road and comes upon a little roadside shelter selling tea. It is occupied by some drabble-tailed geisha huddled together under the meagre awning and flinching away from the water that sheets down from its edges and splashes at their legs. He turns his beaming face to them and calls out in a strong, fruity voice.
“Ah! Beautiful girls! Why won’t one of you follow me and be my wife!”
They simper and giggle, their hands flying up to their mouths to cover their teeth. The old man beams at them and carries on to look for better comfort and shelter. The little musician treads silently behind him. The geisha, thinking that she means to join them, shriek and fling clods of mud at her, but lose interest as it becomes clear that the girl means to go straight on. Some minutes later the swordsman plashes round the corner in his sure-footed way, seeming to glide along the surface of the road - on it, but not of it. His swords, his blank eyes, make the geisha fall silent and still. They watch him as a cat watches, coiled, tense and ready to flee. He comes inexorably closer, and even though his eyes never once even flicker in their direction, the geisha flee their shelter to hide behind it, cowering in the soaking rain until he is finally past.
There is a small grove of rocks and trees, its limbs and crags embracing the low form of a small tea house. It has a rich blue tiled roof and fine framing, and the painted signs have been brushed by an expert hand. The old man gives the house the shortest of glances before turning in his tracks and making for the front door. He is a few paces away from the shelter of the eaves when the lady of the house jerks open the door and comes hurrying out, a trail of soup dribbling down the white lead paint that covers her face.
“Noble traveller! Won’t you come in out of the rain? We have refreshments!”
“Ah! Beautiful lady! Won’t you be my wife?” says the old man, grinning. The lady of the house titters into her hand, her shoulders hunched, her whole body bowed and shaking with affected mirth. Her hard black eyes, however, follow the movements of the old man, relaxing only when he reaches into the folds of his jacket and produces some coins.
“Come in, come in, noble traveller! We have some guests already and they are excellent company.”
The old man grins and nods as she speaks, shaking water from his sodden jacket. He follows her into the house, stepping out of his muddy boots in the genkan and luxuriating in the warm spring of dry tatami under his cold, wet feet. The lady leads him to a noisy, brightly lit room. Through the paper walls the silhouettes of two men can be seen prancing antically with a pair of geisha. The lady slides open the shoji and bows the old man in. As he steps inside, the two geisha disengage from their men and hurry over to the little table laden with sake jars and cups. The men turn, hilarious smiles still lingering on their faces. They too are merchants, dressed in bright kimonos that swell with the fatness of their bellies.
“Hello my friends!” says the old man. “My name is Hira, but everyone calls me Sake Warm because that’s what I always ask for, see? All up and down the East West Road, call in at any house and say ‘Sake! Warm!’ and they will think it is me! Will I drink with you today, good friends?”
Their drunken leers return to their full brilliance. They introduce themselves as the brothers Kojima, fuss over Sake Warm and usher him to their table, calling for drinks, for another girl, in their rough peasant burr.
The lady of the house fusses around taking fresh food orders, gathering up empty sake jars. She is distracted by a movement behind her. The little girl with the koto has followed them inside. She opens her mouth to say something, but the lady chivvys her into the room, urging her to begin. The little girl moves to the far corner and sits down. She slides her instrument out of its cloth bag and sits patiently, waiting for a break in the noise and conversation. When the three men have settled to boisterously toasting each other, the lady totters back toward the front entrance. The little musician’s appearance has reminded her to close the door. There, under the eaves, is the swordsman. He stands perfectly still in the little pool of water that is streaming from his clothing. His left hand rests lightly on his katana as he gazes into the house. The lady stops short, hesitates for a moment, comes to a decision. She bows almost to the floor.
“Samurai sama, welcome to my poor and humble house. Will you step inside and take some refreshment?”
He says nothing at first, merely stares past her for a long moment, listening to the sounds of the voices within.
“I am Atsukawa,” he says, finally. The sounds of the party of Sake Warm and the Kojima brothers seem to be happening on the other side of the world.
“Welcome, Atsukawa sama. How can I serve you today?” says the lady. Her bent back begins to tremble as she struggles to hold her bowed position.
“Sake,” he says, stepping inside, making it finally possible for her to straighten out her tortured spine.
“Atsukawa sama, my most abject apologies - we have only one room and it is occupied. Would you care to use my private chambers?”
“I will go there,” says Atsukawa, nodding at the room in which the outlines of Sake Warm and his new friends can be seen. The lady bows deeply, then hesitates again.
“The rate is three mon…” she stops when she realises she is talking to the empty air. Atsukawa has walked past her as if she no longer existed. He slides open the shoji and stands framed in the doorway.
The three men have frozen ludicrously in place, hands outstretched to fondle girls who are no longer there - who have fled to the corner of the room. They too suffer a moment’s hesitation, unsure of their visitor’s rank, the shabbiness of his clothes vying with the magnificence of his swords. Sake Warm is the first to recover. His face crinkles into the broadest of grins as he bows deeply and greets the newcomer.
“Noble, noble samurai! You are welcome, samurai sama! My name is Hira, but everyone calls me Sake Warm because that’s what I…”
“I am Atsukawa,” he says, cutting the old man off. Atsukawa walks to the low table at the centre of the room, kneels in the central place and pulls his swords from his obi, laying them down by his left hand side. The three men stand respectfully in a line against the far wall, their eyes on the newcomer. A geisha scurries over with a cup and jar, pours him a measure of sake and makes to scurry away.
“Leave it here,” says Atsukawa. She puts the jar down on the table and retreats to the corner where the other girls are. Atsukawa drinks, pours himself another cup. His eyes lock onto the girl with the koto.
“Play,” he says.
“You,” he says to Sake Warm. “Sit with me.”
Sake Warm grins, bobs his head, and sits cross-legged opposite Atsukawa, clumsily fumbling with his staff for a moment before finally deciding to lay it across his knees. Atsukawa drinks off his second cup and Sake Warm tentatively reaches out for the bottle. Seeing that there is no reaction to this, he pours a cup for Atsukawa and then one for himself.
“Kanpai,” he says with forced cheerfulness, holding up his cup with both hands. Atsukawa looks at him, gives the slightest of nods, and drinks his own cup empty. Sake Warm pours again and, after giving Atsukawa a long, searching look, begins to speak.
“I see, samurai sama, that you wear no markings or livery. May I humbly ask where you are from, and which lord you serve?”
“I have no lord.”
There is another long silence after this as Sake Warm waits for Atsukawa to say more. The mournful picking of the koto seems to absorb the swordsman’s whole attention. After a little while, Sake Warm toasts again, drinks again, pours again.
“Where have you come from?” Atsukawa says suddenly.
“I am a simple merchant, as you can see,” says Sake Warm. “I have come from Yubari, where I live with my family, and I travel between there and Sapporo. I trade in tea and tea sets, if it pleases you, Atsukawa sama.”
Atsukawa thinks this over for a moment.
“You lie,” he says. “You are the criminal Hira, and you are from this prefecture. You took the girl Yurimaru into the forest, raped her, ate her, and now you have doubled back so that you can pretend to be a traveller and a stranger.”
The koto stops playing. The only sound for a moment is indrawn breath.
“With the deepest respects - you are mistaken, Atsukawa sama. My name is Hira, but I am no criminal. Go anywhere along the East West road and say ‘Sake Warm’ and they will know me. I swear to you - I am no criminal, I am a tea merchant…”
But Atsukawa has stopped listening. A lightning quick flick of his left wrist has brought his katana to hand. The sword hisses out of its beautiful sheath and through a vicious arc, clashing as it stops against the foot long blade that has just sprung from Sake Warm’s staff.
The two men spring apart, Sake Warm’s once cheerful face now contorted in a ferocious snarl. Atsukawa’s face is blank. He seems to be looking through the old man as he drops the sheath and takes a two handed grip of his sword.
“You are well armed for a merchant,” says Atsukawa, softly.
“Ronin scum! How dare you attack me? You will die!” screams Sake Warm.
Atsukawa nods to himself. He steps left and the old man follows the movement, swinging the bladed staff so that it sings through the air. But Atsukawa has sprung off the ball of his left foot, darting suddenly right and away from the arc of the strike. He brings his sword down on Sake Warm’s unprotected shoulder, cutting the torso diagonally in half. Blood splatters on the paper walls. A thin line of splashed blood arcs across the ceiling as he brings his sword up again. A gobbet of human flesh flicks onto the face of the nearest geisha. She screams and makes a run for the door. Atsukawa reacts to the movement, cutting her down. There are more screams at this, so he steps forward, slashing right and left, and the other girl falls heavily onto the bloody floor. The Kojima brothers are backing away from Atsukawa, shoulders hunched submissively, hands raised in token of surrender. Atsukawa looks at them. The sword blurs again. The first brother is slashed across the belly and he follows the cascade of his intestines to the floor. The second brother has stood in the way of the backswing. He sways for a moment before his head falls to the floor, teeth chattering as it bounces on the tatami matting. A great jet of blood spurts to the ceiling. The body drops and the fountain of blood turns into a gushing river. The shoji slams open behind Atsukawa as the lady of the house comes pelting in.
“What have you done!” she shrieks. Atsukawa turns and slams his sword point into her open mouth so hard that several inches of blade punch out the back of her head. She sags, and Atsukawa lets the weight of her bring his sword point down. He plants his foot on her gaping face to help him free the point from her skull. Atsukawa turns to the little girl with the koto. She sits perfectly still in the corner, her doll like face and hands splattered with crimson flecks.
Atsukawa points his dripping sword at the mess of innards and flesh and bright yellow fat that was Sake Warm.
“Is this the man who took your sister?” he asks.
The girl looks, pale faced with terror, then shakes her head.
“But his name is Hira,” he says.
“Forgive me. It is not him,” says the girl.
Atsukawa nods to himself, flicks the thick blood off his sword and wipes the remaining smears on the already heavily crusted hem of his haori.
“We go to the next place,” he says.
The girl nods, gathers up her instrument and follows Atsukawa through the now silent house and out into the rain.
At length there came the noble ronin Atsukawa. He had heard of the reward and wished to punish this crime that cried out to heaven of its evil. The noble ronin Atsukawa travelled far and wide, seeking the monster who had taken the girl Yurimaru. He had many adventures, and performed many great deeds until he reached Sapporo, where he finally found and killed the criminal Hira who had taken the girl Yurimaru. As well as the reward, Lord Mitsui accepted Atsukawa into his personal retinue. In time, Atsukawa became the leader of Lord Mitsui’s retainers and performed many great deeds. It is for this reason that the town of Kawajima has its name, in memory of the great and noble deeds of Atsukawa.