DAVID KIRK - The Official Site of the Author

The official site of the author of the Musashi series of books.

The official site of the author of the Musashi series of books., David Kirk.

Hours of the Dog - Excerpt

 

Fourteen years ago, the summer nascent and perhaps the height of his zeal.

Akiyama, hair pulled tight and straight by his topknot and oiled enough that it
appeared a perfect black, approached the watermill. It was a plain and utilitarian building
set upon a raised structure overhanging a deep river, the roof thatched, the wood grey and
square. The great wheel was locked in place, the river painting the lowermost spokes and
paddles green with algae.

Here was where the rice of the village was husked, but the harvest was seasons
away still. Until then the mill was used as a store house, last year’s straw left to dry in piles.
The doorway was cast open, what lay within dark. Akiyama stopped a distance away and
set his thumbs into his belt, adjusted the weight of his swords.

“Sir Ogawa, are you in there?” he called.

“I feel it only fair to warn you,” came a voice, “That I have in my possession a
blackpowder pistol. It was made in Pottogarru. Should you stick your head inside, your
skull shall be emptied by European means.”

“Really, Sir Ogawa?” said Akiyama, “A swordmaster of your standing could bring
himself to use a gun?”

“Feels good in my hand,” said Ogawa, “Heavy. Wood and iron. Strange metalwork
on it though, all ugly and crude. Their blocky little idea of letters. Funny to think it came a
half way around the world, and now here it is.”

“Treasured, is it?”

“A friend gave it to me a long time ago. Kept it for luck. Takes venom to cure
venom, doesn’t it? Always held it by the barrel. Never put my finger on the trigger, never
dignified it like that. Until now. Now I find it’s weighted as well as any sword.”

“I doubt that very much.” said Akiyama.

“You don’t sound like a rice picker,” said Ogawa, “They went and got muscle, did
they?”

“I am samurai, yes.” said Akiyama, “But I was not summoned by anyone of this
village. It is my honour to serve the most noble Lord Ukita, and it is on his bidding that I
am come.”

“Ahh, at last,” said Ogawa, and there was a rattle that might have been either
laughing or coughing, “And who is it that he has sent?”

“We have met before,” said Akiyama, “I had once the privilege of studying under
you.”

“Oh, indeed?” said Ogawa, “Is that you out there, Shinnosuke?”

“No, not him. I’m no long-avowed acolyte of yours like he was,” said Akiyama,
“Cruel to send a man like that on such a task as this, would it not be? I was your student
only briefly.”

“Hmm… Amano?”

“No.” said Akiyama.

Ogawa said nothing for some time, perhaps conjuring faces from his memory. The
water of the river flowed on. Akiyama slowly walked around either side of the building,
scanning, evaluating, chewing the inside of his lip.

“Have you followed me all the way from Bizen?” called Ogawa.

“Yes,” said Akiyama, “Quite the trail you’ve lead me on.”

“Ahh,” said Ogawa, a clear laugh this time, “Voice is from the left now - you’re
looking for another way in, aren’t you? No, only the door here out front, lest you fancy a
swim and a climb up that big old wheel.”

“Does that not mean there is only one exit also?” said Akiyama, “Can you swim, Sir
Ogawa?”

“No.” said Ogawa, still amused.

“Then I await your presence here,” said Akiyama, “What are minutes or hours after
months?”

“More than hours, maybe lad. Comfortable here. Haven’t drank in a day and I feel
fine, barely drink anything any more. Barely eat. Amazing what you can live without when
you are pushed.”

“You sound fever-maddened,” said Akiyama, “Can you really be satisfied rolling
around in straw? I remember your dignity before. You handled a sword so well… I once
watched you spar with three men set against you, they with their wooden swords drawn
and you with yours still at your waist. Done in five moves; cut with the drawing strike, then
parried like you were deflecting with light itself.”

“A teacher countering the moves he has taught to the men he fights is no feat,” said
Ogawa, “They attacked as they ought to attack and I repulsed them as I ought to repulse.
All set. A dancer’s routine.”

“I envied you.” said Akiyama, The colour of your skin almost as much your skill,
the way you knelt at the head and so effortlessly belonged
.

“Envy…” said Ogawa, “Trying to taunt me with what was, eh Ginchiyo?”

“I am not Ginchiyo, and neither am I trying to taunt you.”

“It’s all faded to me now, regardless. All those years belonged to someone else.”

“Indeed.”

Akiyama was unsure of what to say, and so he returned to stand in front of the
doorway, the darkness impenetrable as before. He scratched patterns in the dusty earth with
his foot as he waited. On the peak of the thatched roof ravens watched him silently.

“Perhaps if you did taunt me,” said Ogawa eventually, kindness in his voice, “You
know, really insulted me so that my blood boils and I cannot help but rise to the challenge.
That might make me lose my wits and make me charge out.”

“I’m not in the habit of insulting people.”

“Even your enemies?”

“Especially my enemies.”

“What if you know them to be worthless though?”

“I have never met a worthless man.”

“There is nothing in this world but worthless men.”

“Yourself exempted?” asked Akiyama.

“Myself included.” said Ogawa.

“Bleak,” said Akiyama, “Bleak.”

“And you, naïve.”

“Perhaps.”

 

“You’re very placid.” said Ogawa.

“I know the worth of what I do.”

Ogawa did not disagree; a lengthy silence again. Akiyama ran his thumb absently
over the guard of his sword, a steel rectangle with rounded corners carved with an image of
holy Mount Hiei and the temples there. From the roof one of the ravens took flight, wings
beating heavy. It plunged into the reeds on the far bank of the river, vanishing, the long
blue-green stalks thrashing, the sound stolen by distance.

 

“If you’re just going to stand there,” called Ogawa, “Let me tell you of a dream I
had, seeing as you’re bound such by me. I suppose I ought to tell someone.

“It was vivid, rare… odd. I was there, and a woman was there. She was facing away
from me. I do not know who it was exactly. I do not think it was my wife. I think it was
her. Her that I wanted. Her. She was facing away from me, and I was as I am now, and a
young man also. She walks and I am compelled to follow, though she does not look back.
In this dream we inhabit a realm of corners, for she is always turning around one, always
just passing out of sight; around the sides of buildings, through doors closing, behind the
trunks of great trees… The back of her heels beneath the hem of her skirts leading me,
white, pure white, stockings or flesh I cannot tell.

“We walk on and on, and I cannot bring myself to speak, to call out to her. I
look down I realize that I am bound to her, is why I’m following. From my stomach, the
birthcord, loose and slack, and attached to her – I know it is somehow, though I cannot see
the connection of it, she is not sullied by mucus and gristle, her that I want. No. The cord
grows slacker still, and begins to drag along the floor. There it coils, nooses, forming little
rings into which I have to step, and these worm up my legs, ensnaring. On I walk, and now
the birthcord is around my arms, around my waist, wrapping itself around me. Around my
throat, between my fingers… Even lodged between my teeth.

“I couldn’t bite through it, couldn’t claw myself free – I don’t want to. It doesn’t
hurt, doesn’t choke, doesn’t break my stride even the slightest. The birthcord begins to
press into me. Forms a new skin… Scabs over me. Thick, bloody, raw. And I walk now,
with my limbs all scabbed and ugly and cracking and peeling and reforming as I go, and
still she is not looking back.

“We enter an orchard, and I do not think it is a real one. Do they have branches all
the way to the ground, apple trees? I’ve never seen one. But these are apple trees were like
that, thick and green, and her always vanishing into the leaves, leading me on. Apples on
the branches, big and red, and scattered on the grass. I take one and eat it. To do so I have
to push it through the fibre over my mouth, ripping it. Imagine hands at prayer pushing
through gauze, and then moving apart. No pain. No taste either, and I just chew and chew
and swallow, and then I can feel it leave me. I look down and see it go up away along the
translucent birthcord, all the bits of chewed apple, chasing after her, white like dry snow,
the way the snow gets when it is truly cold. Squeaks underfoot. I feel the apple sucking
out from my belly, away, offered up. Still I eat. Still it goes. More and more and more.
Whatever I eat, whatever I feel, all goodness and vitality. It is pulled from me, taken up to
her…

“I look and then I realise I’m not the only one bound such. Through the leaves,
through the trees. Glimpses. I see that there’s dozens of us, these terrible looking husks
all linked, all linked to her, and she has become an it now, vanished entirely but still there
formless, beyond, still pulling what it wanted out from us, and I shivered and wretched, and
then I woke up,” said Ogawa, “You… Are you Lady Ishizaki’s boy, what was it? Junichi?
Juntaro?”

 

“If you’d come out and look, you’d know me.” said Akiyama.

“A shame, a shame, that lad had a fine feint on him, I would so liked to have faced
it without him fumbling it so obviously to honour his teacher. I would have liked to have
seen his real self.”

“Come, Sir Ogawa,” said Akiyama, “Are the moments in there alone truly so
precious?”

“It may be that I am seeing eternity in here,” said Ogawa, “But I am willing to
concede it looks no more than a big mess of straw.”

“Then come,” said Akiyama, “You are talented with a blade. There is the chance
that you may see other things yet.”

“Minutes after months do have meaning, then.”

“There is someone I am absent from,” said Akiyama, “On your account.”

“My account? I’m long departed from Bizen, long finished with your Lord Ukita,”
said Ogawa, “Why have you followed me so far?”

“Principles.”

“Well recited. He says and you do. Nothing finer than to aid in the grand and
faultless functioning of the whole without a face of your own, right?” said Ogawa, and
for the first time bitterness was apparent in his voice, “No sweeter a definition of a man
than to bear a shame passed down onto you and vow to redouble your efforts to atone for
somebody else’s faults.”

“Then give me a reason,” said Akiyama, “Deign unto me a morality. Tell me why
you did what you did.”

“You would think me so kind?” said Ogawa, “To give you further vigour when you
stand out there doubtless clutching the handle of your sword with your little heart all going
don-don-don against your ribs just aching for the chance?”

“I am quite level,” said Akiyama, “Quite placid as you said.”

“Fine,” said Ogawa, “If you want to know the truth… I saw them all there, in my
hall, on their knees before me. Looking up to me. Doing exactly as I said. Taking my word
as theirs. And then I was back in that dream, and I wondered, truly… Was I the husk, or
was I the one that made them?
“Not one of them drew a sword, a real sword, until the fifth man lay slain. Whatever
it is scabbed too thick upon their arms, their minds.”

A few moments later something was thrown from the doorway, clattered across the
dry earth past him. Akiyama turned to look, and saw a pistol just as Ogawa had described.

“Just tried to shoot myself through the heart,” said Ogawa, “No surprise, that
foreign shit failed me. It appears it is to be the old ways for us. Ready yourself. I come.”

In the doorway he appeared, and what Akiyama saw then was to him the very
image of the clanless. Ogawa’s clothes were rags, the wide trousers that would have once
covered his feet now filthy and torn such that his knees were bare, so too his jacket ruined,
hanging open and revealing a withered stomach with a shadowy path of hair tracing up past his navel. The hair of his scalp that had once been shaven had grown in and was plastered
grey to his brow, that which had been long before now grease-matted strands the colour of
smoke, dangling all the way to his sternum.

Ogawa’s lips were red and raw like they were blistered from the cold, as though he
had been chewing and picking at them. His arms were slack, hanging around his waist like
a dead man’s, a rusting long sword clutched in one hand. He stood at the top of the steps
that lead up to the mill, and as he stared down at Akiyama with dead eyes those gnawed
lips pulled up past haggard gums.

“Oh, so it’s you,” he said, “Has my esteem truly fallen so far?”

“I am Nagayoshi Akiyama,” said the Foreigner, “Humble vassal of the most
hallowed clan Ukita, son of Hirotada Akiyama, of the noble bloodline Tachibana, and it is
my honour to fulfill this duty,”

***

He had already lined a cask with salt, a pretty thing lacquered black with the image
of a spreading pine set upon it in gold leaf and green paint, and when it was done Ogawa’s
head fit neatly inside. On the way back to Ukita’s court, the people who saw it hanging
from his saddle assumed him to be a connoisseur of fine sake.


In the subsequent years, on those nights when sleep was reluctant to come,
sometimes Akiyama would look at his hands in the moonlight, at the flesh between his
middle and ring fingers, really look at it and wonder if he would dream of birthcords
noosing there.


The bells of the Gion temple toll the impermanence of all things...