Bloody Fruit

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I was born in the mountains, in a small village amid pine and snow. My baptism was conducted in the river Sho, and my mother said that I was born under an auspicious star. For several years I lived in relative happiness high up on Mount Haku. During my fifth winter, my family suffered through the same hunger pangs as all the rest of our village, for the harvest had been poor and most of our rice went to the lord and his soldiers. But by heaven’s mercy, we survived.

My father was a woodworker of some skill and was often away from home. When he returned to us, he would smile at me and produce from his robe a small wooden bear or deer or pig. Memory can be a strange, cruel faculty. I am still haunted by the living images of many terrible things past, but I can no longer remember his face, nor that of my mother. I do remember that he was a tall man, quiet and kind.

One gray, cloudy autumn day my father took me to the pineland just west of our home. The village was ablaze with the vibrant red, orange, and yellow of kouyou, the changing of the leaves, but the pineland was a sanctuary of eternal green.

A boy of seven years, I was still too small to help him cut wood, but had by then learned the qualities and common uses of the trees native to our land. A gentle rustling of the wind in the arboreal greenery and the occasional twitter of birds accompanied the steady thump of father’s axe biting into living pine. Half-listening to this familiar music of the mountain, I went about my usual business of gathering pine cones and stray branches for fuel.

From time to time I raised my eyes to the silvery veil of heaven. Through a small break in the vast blanket of cloud, I spotted an early moon, curved and sharp, perched and pale. Soon it was gone again, and I arranged my pine cones into rows of soldiers, poised and ready to meet in glorious battle. Some would fall in the pineland that day, but all would burn in our hearth, I told them. Father suggested that the armies were not yet quite large enough and that I should seek for more soldiers.

As the day wore on, the wind picked up and the birdsong died. The sky began to take on a bright, amber complexion. I knew something was amiss, for dusk could not yet have encroached upon a day so young. Father’s strokes ceased, and he joined me in my searching, upward glance. It wasn’t long before the wind changed, carrying to us the black tiding of doom.

My father looked at me and hesitated for a moment, then knelt down before me. He bid me remain there among the trees and wait for his return. I remember the quick, warm touch of his hand upon my head. Then he hoisted his axe and ran for home. It was the last time I saw him.

For what felt like several hours, I waited. Crouched against a knotted tree, I fearfully glared up at that dark, twisted plume as it continued to writhe and grasp at the hateful orange sky before dissipating into oblivion. Finally I could take it no longer. I was afraid of disobeying my father and of what I would find upon our grassy mountain terrace, but I was more afraid of the quiet, tortured solitude I was now forced to endure.

Through the trees I crept. Through the shimmery, white-tipped field of silver grass I stumbled. Up the steeply inclined sward edging our corner of the village I half-ran, half-crawled. When I reached the top, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Our house was gone, reduced to a pile of smoldering timber and ash. The home of Wada, our nearest neighbor, lay also in ruins, and further off in the village I saw fingers of dark smoke rising up in worship to the murky, yellow sky like some horrible pagan holocaust.

I was not alone amid the destruction. There were bodies, some blackened and twisted, others ragged and bloodied. They were my friends and neighbors. And my family. Many were piled into large wooden carts, but some remained where they had been slaughtered.

Curious, that I did not see the others at first. When I finally did notice, they were nearly upon me. At the time I thought them oni, for they were large and terrible. Their skin was crimson, painted with the blood of Shirakawa village, and they bared wicked, white, smiling teeth as they pointed and shouted and rushed to greet me with club and sickle.

I turned to flee, but immediately stumbled over my own feet. Stricken with terror and grief, all I could do was sob and look up into the burning eyes of the red man who reached me first. He grinned down at me for a several long heartbeats. I shall never forget those crazed eyes, possessed by only God knows what. Finally he raised his curved blade high for the kill.

There was a loud, wet-sounding crack, like a sap-filled branch being torn from its trunk. The red man jerked forward, his expression immediately darkening and his free hand reaching for the back of his head. He turned and received another powerful blow to the face. His head snapped toward me and thick globs of blood flew from his nose and mouth, dotting the grass and mingling on his body with the viscera of his victims. Amazingly he stood to endure one more smash to his crown before collapsing to the ground at my feet, broken and dead. His aged, vacant face smiled mirthlessly at me.

As his body crumbled to the grassy floor, a small bag of white cloth speckled copper-red tumbled out from within the folds of his soiled robe. God forgive me. I still don’t know why, but I picked it up and stuffed it against my chest. It was warm.

Then I felt a strong hand grab at my arm and pull me to my feet. Standing above me was the tall and lanky Father Bartolomeu, the priest who lived in the valley of Sho and whom many of the children called “Father Shun,” owing to the difficulty of pronouncing his Christian name. He tossed away the heavy, bloodied stick and bent down level to my face.

“We must flee, Andore,” he spoke grimly. “Can you run?”

Several voices rose in anger and I glanced past him as two strangers ran to meet the red men. Both wore simple, gray kimono, and both were clearly warriors. The first was lean and broad-shouldered. His face was grim and set, and a messy black topknot sprung from the top of his head. He gripped the handle of a long, gently curved katana with both hands, though a shorter blade was also strapped at his waist. The other man was of an ilk I had never seen before. His skin, where visible, was light, though flushed. Rough-looking, brown hair protruded from nearly every opening of his robe and grew from his head and face in a great beard. He towered at least two-head above all the other men, even Father Shun. In his right hand he bore a large, straight sword and in his left a stout plank of wood.

I watched as one of the marauders practically impaled himself on the shorter warrior’s Japanese steel. Somehow the man, in some unholy frenzy, continued forward, swiping wildly at our defender with a short, curved blade. The warrior hopped back dexterously, and with one powerful motion he withdrew his sword from the red-man’s torso and brought it up and in a horizontal stroke through his neck, parting head from body.

At the same time, the bear-man used his wooden slab to deflect the bludgeoning blows of the two nearest enemies. One was repaid with cold metal through his black heart, and the other with a tremendous knock to his face from the large timber. Blood spurted forth from his nose and the villain staggered backwards, but quickly regained his senses and renewed the attack. Several of his comrades joined him in falling upon the giant.

Turning to engage a new opponent of his own, the Japanese warrior stole a quick glance back at us and jerked his head meaningfully.

“Andore!” Father Shun shook me bodily, reclaiming my attention. I nodded quickly at him and we made a run for it. He led me away from the fighting down a tortuous path through the remains of my little village. At the approaching sound of more of the red murderers rushing to join the violence, we ducked behind a corpse-laden wain resting beside the smoking rubble of Farmer Hata’s house. My eyes watered as I stared at the unmolested rice paddies.

While we waited for the men to pass, I remembered the warmth against my chest. A dreadful curiosity seized me and I drew forth the bag. Father Shun was still watching our enemies, preparing to resume our escape.

I upended the pouch and a large orange-red persimmon tumbled forth onto the ground. It was larger than any I had ever seen, and surrounding its short, stubby stem, where there should have been a green, leafy crest was instead a tuft of ratty black hair. A sick fascination gripped me, even as I knew that this was something truly horrible; something I did not want to see. I nudged it with my foot, and the fruit rolled over to reveal the waxy likeness of a man’s face, frozen in a twisted silent laugh. It was the face of the man Father Shun had slain.

I don’t clearly remember all that happened next. I think I must have lost my senses and begun to scream, for soon a straggling member of the crimson demon-men was running towards us. Father Shun pushed me behind him and rushed to meet the sickle-wielding attacker. The priest took a slice to the gut but was able to quickly engage the man in a desperate grapple. Though thin and long of limb, Father Shun was deceptively strong. Yet he struggled in this contest. In the end, after much twisting and turning, the priest and his foe tumbled to the ground and the fiend’s head was dashed upon a rock.

Father Shun stood up shakily and stumbled over to me. He was bleeding from at least half a dozen cuts and gashes on his limbs and torso. As he steadied himself upon the grisly cart, he raised his head in alarm. The clamor of more nearby voices meant we had little time. Our erstwhile defenders must have either fallen or fled.

The man who had baptized me in the river Sho knelt down to my level a second time. His face was drawn and pale.

“Andore, you must be brave now and do as I tell you,” he instructed me. “Be silent. Pretend you are dead. And when they are not watching, make your escape. God protect you, boy.”

With that, he hoisted me up into the cart, amongst the bodies. For many years I was ashamed to admit that I did as he said. I closed my eyes and laid silent and still. I heard the return of the raving mob, and I heard as they opened his throat. I nearly cried out in pain when they threw him into the wagon and he landed partly atop my chest.

I don’t know how long I lied there. By some blessing I fell in and out of consciousness. The bumpy motion of the cart would occasionally jar me into wakefulness, but soon my mind would shut down and I would drift into unrestful sleep.

Finally we came to a stop. The day’s light was waning. I heard footsteps about me and the thuds of bodies being tossed violently to the earth. There was another sound, too, faint and haunting and distant. I felt myself approaching the edge of panic. They would soon unload my cart, and I would be discovered. But then the men stopped.

“This is enough for tonight. Let’s take these. It will not be displeased.”

Another voice grunted in agreement. “You’re right. And I need to eat, too.”

I waited while the men dragged away several of the villagers. Then, after many long minutes of silence, I allowed myself to move my head and look about. The flames of several nearby torches cut into the darkness of twilight. I desperately wanted to run, but convinced myself to wait until the evil men would be asleep. Meanwhile my ears strained to make out that eerie far-off sound. There was something about it that reminded me of cruel laughter.

I waited for a long time, until the stars shone dimly overhead. The crescent moon now shed a pale orange glow. The torchlight eventually grew dimmer, and I dared to stir from my gruesome seat among the dead. From what I could tell, I appeared to be in a slightly elevated, treeless clearing. The shadowy forms of large rocks dotted the ground, and a ways distant from the half-dozen wagons were three campfires surrounded by several large tents. Three more lights, smaller, moved in a slow circle around the wagons and larger fires.

I was deciding what to do when another blaze came to life in the gloom, illuminating a hilltop in the direction opposite the carts. The camp began to stir and men to holler and cry out in mingled fury and despair. The pyre started small, but quickly grew into an immense balefire. As it burned, I heard the mingled voices of hundreds of men, not merely the inhabitants of the encampment, which couldn’t number more than a few dozen. The voices seemed to both shriek in pain and howl in peals of maddened laughter.

The fire spread and enveloped what looked to be a gigantic tree, shaking and swaying violently, though the wind was calm. Orbs of flame began to separate and tumble from its enormous limbs. Down below, some of the men fell to the ground, writhing. Others fled into the night. A few ran to the tree. At this distance I could barely make out their shapes as they ran to the base of the great plant and were cut down by two others, standing guard over the conflagration.

I watched as the pair, apparently satisfied that the flames could not be quelled, descended into the camp. Those who had not fled now stood and charged madly, some taking up club or torch, others wielding only thew and tooth and nail. The two fought fiercely side-by-side. When the larger man’s sword became lodged in an enemy’s rib cage, he abandoned it and fought with shield and fist. Eventually the plank shattered and he was nearly overpowered by two of the frenzied demon-men.

His ally, meanwhile, fought with the grace of a seasoned swordsman, with nary a wasted movement. And when finesse would not suffice, he possessed strength sufficient to match any other fighting man.

Unfortunately the two were still outnumbered and their opponents possessed of an ungodly strength known only to madmen. Something stirred within me, watching them fight. Father Shun had told me to be brave. His memory and that of my mother and father welled up inside of me. I leapt down from the wagon and ran as fast as I could to the camp. Screaming, sobbing, I ran into the light. Several of the combatants turned to look at me. Simeon told me later that this was enough to save the fight. One of the red men turned, and just before he was cut down he delivered upon me a terrible blow. My vision turned red and black, and I collapsed.

I awoke the next day in the large arms of the bear-man. Leif, he was called. He didn’t speak much Japanese, but he and his companion conversed in the priest-tongue. The swordsman with whom he traveled was called Simeon. They were taking me with them to the capital, Kyoto, where Simeon told me I might see the king.

At first I was frightened of Leif, but he was actually very kind. As we made our journey, he occasionally changed the bandage over my eye and through Simeon he told me that he was the son of saints and kings in a faraway land. I once asked him why he had come to Japan. He motioned up to the sky and with a grin pointed at Simeon’s katana. Seeing my confusion, the samurai answered for his friend, “Leif has come to do God’s work. And also for Japanese steel.”

In the days that followed, I told them about my mother and father. I asked why God had let this happen.

Leif only placed his gigantic hand gently upon my shoulder and shook his head sadly. Simeon told me that he too grieved for my village, and for Father Shun, who had been his friend. They had been visiting when our village was attacked, and when they saw the smoke the three had rushed to investigate and provide aid if they could. They had arrived too late to save anyone but me. He told me that my family and the people of my village had given their lives so that the evil of the devil jinmenju tree would be destroyed.

It was years before I could accept this, and even after I had taken holy orders at the Royal Abbey it was long before I was able to accept God’s plan. But I was always grateful that He had sent Leif and Simeon and Father Shun, the three heroes who saved my life.

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