He was four when he first met his wife.
No one knew whose child he was, only that he was the son of a samurai. There had been many travelers on that stretch of road after the Cherry Blossom Festival, and the Oni had not been picky about its victims. Even his name was lost. His foster parents called him Shinobu, meaning "Endurance", both for his silence and the uncomplaining way he did whatever he was asked.
That day, he was playing by the crossroads, as he often did. He liked watching the people come and go on the highway. He hoped that one day he might see Mother. He didn't know what she looked like, but he was sure he would recognize her.
It was hot and dry. Yellow dust hung in the air, making people cough as they hurried by. Four children played in the brown fields, shouting with laughter. As they darted toward him, he could see three boys, and a girl, smaller and younger than the rest. All were samurai children from the village. The boys laughed uproariously as they tossed something to each other. The girl chased them with grim determination, her mouth set. Her cheeks were red with the effort, and her black hair stuck out in all directions.
The largest boy, Kichiro, stopped and held the object above his head, a tube of some kind, hollow at one end. He dangled it teasingly. "Come on, jump for it!" he jeered. The girl gathered herself, but to the boy's surprise, she ran straight into him, fists driving into his stomach. Startled, he lost his balance and fell flat on the ground, with the girl on top. She grabbed the object from his now-limp hand and started to rise.
The other two boys were laughing so hard they couldn’t speak. But Kichiro had turned red with anger. As the girl stood, he grabbed her by the hair and pulled her roughly down again. With his other hand he viciously twisted her wrist so that she cried out and dropped her hard-won prize.
Kichiro stood up, breathing heavily, and kicked the tube away. He aimed his next kick at the girl, but it never found its mark. Shinobu was on him, punching and biting and bringing him to the ground again. The other two boys looked on in shocked silence for a moment, and then with outraged shouts they rushed to aid their friend.
Although his attack had taken the older boy by surprise, his advantage did not last. Kichiro fought back with strength and determination, and the other two boys joined in with a will. Shinobu was knocked to the ground, and a savage kick to the head momentarily stunned him. At a word from Kichiro, the other two boys pulled him up by the hair and arms, holding him tightly as he fought on, trying to bite and kick his way to freedom. “It’s the mute boy!” Kichiro spat, wiping blood from his chin. “I’ll teach you to mess with me!”
Shinobu only grunted as Kichiro kicked him in the stomach, but another blow to the head made him nauseous and dizzy. Kichiro was cursing loudly, and then the girl was yelling too, a stream of invectives directed at her three tormentors. With his one good eye, Shinobu saw Kichiro moving in once again. He twisted violently, but was unable to shake the boys off. Then the girl stepped quickly to Kichiro's side and rammed her tube against his right arm, pushing both thumbs against the closed end. Kichiro screamed as the tube fell away to reveal several wicked-looking metal darts now stuck in his biceps. Blood coursed down his arm and dripped off his fingers. He pulled at one of the darts, but screamed even louder as barbs ripped through his flesh. Holding his wounded arm with his good one, he turned and ran. His companions abruptly dropped Shinobu and went after him.
Shinobu fell heavily to the dirt, retching. The girl squatted next to him, waiting patiently for him to finish.
"I'm Natsumi. Are you all right?" Shinobu started to nod, but stopped as another wave of nausea swept over him. Natsumi helped him up, and the two of them slowly made their way back to his house. His mother took one look at him and sent for the village healer. She then questioned Natsumi closely about what had happened, shaking her head ruefully but with obvious pride. He couldn't eat much at dinner that night, but she gave him ginger candy to suck on, a rare treat.
Later, as he tried to find a comfortable position on his futon, he heard his parents talking in hushed voices. "I've suspected it for some time, but he's always been so quiet! But there can be no question. He is a Hida." He could hear the sadness in his mother's voice. "Yes, we must send for someone to evaluate him. He will be a bushi, I suppose." His father chuckled quietly. "I do not think Kichiro will bother Natsumi again."
As the house fell silent, Shinobu stared at the ceiling, his many aches forgotten. A Hida? Was he truly a Hida? Would he have to leave the village? How would Mother find him if he did? His questions chased each other down into an uneasy sleep.
That night, Mother came to him. He stood by the crossroads, as always, but the roads stretched infinitely far into the distance. Shadowy grey plains surrounded him on all sides, a few trees growing here and there.
She strode through the moonlight, utterly silent, a tall muscular woman in armor. Her face was hidden behind her mempo, carved in the shape of a ferocious ogre, but still he knew her. He would have known her anywhere.
She came straight to him, bending down and sweeping him into an embrace. He buried his face in her shoulder, but she had no smell, which bothered him. She had always smelled of sweat and open air. His foster mother smelled of ink and the tea leaves she chewed throughout the day. He looked up at her as she took off her helmet and mempo, revealing a scarred face and flashing brown eyes.
"My boy," she said. "It is time." She gazed at him proudly. "You have done all I asked, and more. You are a true warrior."
Shinobu bowed, confused but happy at her praise. His mother took his face in her hands, her fingers gently touching the bruises and cuts he still bore. "Ho! You will have your first scar right here," she said, tracing a line on his cheek. "It is well."
She straightened then, and gazed at him intently. "It is time to speak, my son. You must tell them who you are. You must tell them my name, so you can be trained as a true Hida."
He opened his mouth, hesitating only a moment before speaking his first words in almost three years. "Am I a Hida, Mother?"
"Yes, of course! I am Hida Suzume. Your father was Hida Masaru. And you," here she tapped his chest, “You are Hida Kenichi.”
Shinobu frowned in concentration, turning the unfamiliar names over in his mouth, shaping the words on his tongue. He dimly remembered someone calling him Kenichi, long ago.
He looked up at his mother again, who smiled down at him. "You must remember your name, Kenichi. You must tell them. Do you understand?"
Out of long habit, he nodded. As his mother continued to watch him, he found his voice. "Yes, Mother. I will remember."
His mother ruffled his hair and hugged him briefly. "I am proud of you." She glanced over his head, and stiffened. "Now you must go."
"But Mother!" he protested, his mind overwhelmed with everything he wanted to say.
"I am sorry, Kenichi-chan, but the living may not linger in Meido." She bowed low to a man who had suddenly appeared behind him. Shinobu jumped, and stared at the man, who wore a white mask that completely covered his face. He could see no eyes behind the openings in the mask. Uncertainly, he also bowed. The man nodded, and then gestured at one of the roads.
"Goodbye, Kenichi! Remember me!" his mother shouted as he followed the man down the unending road. Shinobu turned back to look at her once more, but she was gone. The white-faced man was gone too, and the road, and the plains. Darkness surrounded him and drew him down to sleep.
When he asked for more rice at breakfast the next morning, there was a short shocked silence, and then his mother started crying as his father, grinning foolishly, offered him his own bowl. A whirlwind of a month later, he was ready to leave for Kyuden Hida, where he was to meet his mother's family. His wounds had healed, but there was a scar on his right cheek. Natsumi had come by several times to visit him, and to show him the traps she was working on. On the day he was to leave, she came late, racing towards him as he prepared to climb up in front of one of the ashigaru that had been sent for him.
She held out a clumsily wrapped package. "Here, take it. You might need it sometime." She fidgeted with her hair as she watched him open it. It was another of the tubes, and Kenichi examined the mechanism carefully to make sure it would not accidentally go off. "Thank you," he said, and an awkward silence fell between them. "I will come back," he blurted suddenly, bowing his farewell. She bowed and smiled. "Yes" was all she said.