She walked along the dirt path, the child clinging to her sleeve barely registering in the haze of hunger and exhaustion that seemed to cloud her vision. Ojiya felt as weary as though she and her family had crossed the entirety of Japan, the ache in her bones so strong that she feared they might snap if she put her foot down wrong. Perhaps they had even seen the entire known world, and all of it was war, famine and violence. There were many times she was close to giving up, when she wanted to just lie down and ask Hibukuro to lay beside her and die with her. But she couldn’t do that to her beloved Dororo, so she kept going.
How long had it been since she had that scare by the road? That ostentatious palanquin had stopped and the aristocratic occupant sent some rice cakes to Dororo out of pity. She could see it playing out in her mind: her husband would reject this pitiful charity, he’d start a fight with the samurai and they’d gang up on him and kill him. So she’d yanked Dororo’s hand before he was able to fully grab the cake, making it fall to the dusty ground. Dororo screamed and cried at her out of frustration and hunger when she wouldn’t let him eat it, but Ojiya wasn’t sorry. She’d do anything to keep her family alive and preserve their honour. They’d rather eat worms than take pity from those samurai.
How long had it been since then? A week? A month? The landscape had changed from plains filled with wildgrass, weeds and flowers to a more mountainous and forested area. They’d come across some rather gruesome battlefields, but judging by the bleached bones and rusted armor of the fallen soldiers, the area had been undisturbed for weeks, except by crows and other scavengers. Like themselves. Ojiya had confused feelings in her chest as she saw Dororo looting the rotten bodies, and smiling cheerfully whenever he found something valuable. Whether she liked it or not, her child was a child of war, and it would affect him no matter what he grew up to be.
In her dreams she sometimes saw her family as they should have been: simple farmers, untouched by the cruelty of the world. She and her husband would work the fields and then come home to their lovely children. Dororo would spend the day playing with her older siblings. Wait, her? Even in her dreams, Ojiya admonished herself for slipping up. Dororo was not a girl. A girl would not be able to survive in this desperate, brutal, vicious world. Dororo had told his parents he was a boy, so he was. He was the son of cunning bandits, and he would grow up to be an artful thief himself. Ojiya’s dream of having a beautiful daughter to dote on was dead. It was dead on the same day samurai had shot down her two eldest children just for bow practice. It was dead the moment she discovered she had a resilient son instead.
It was a late summer evening with an autumn chill in the air, and Jukai felt pensive. A week ago, Hyakkimaru had suddenly grown a leg after killing a demon. Did that mean he could potentially recover more body parts? But the boy had been killing ghouls and demons for at least a couple of years and only now had this happened. Maybe there were some creatures in particular that held his body parts hostage.
The more Jukai thought about it, the more it seemed the only way to truly find out would be for Hyakkimaru to leave his home to find and kill more demons. And Jukai couldn’t see himself being part of that journey.
He could fight, yes, and he could also kill ghouls, but even a grown man like himself was no match for Hyakkimaru. It was disturbing how much and how well his young son could kill and Jukai knew it was because he couldn’t feel pain nor fear. Hyakkimaru would only know these senses if he went out and killed the demons that held them hostage.
It’s like a snake that eats its own tail , he mused with his head resting on his hand, he must become more and more like a soulless killing machine before he can be truly human. And here I am the selfish fool, being more upset about not being able to go with-
Just then he heard the unmistakable sounds of footsteps outside. That was odd, his house was rather far from the village and Hyakkimaru was inside with him.
Getting up, he slid open the back door to his house, the one facing the rear garden and the well. Light from his house spilled into the rocks and weeds in his yard and onto the face of an incredibly weary looking man leaning on a staff, and reaching towards the well.
The two men looked at each other, each tense and seizing each other up. Jukai saw that the man was dressed like a peasant, but one used to fighting rather than farming. The scars on his face and arms and the fact that his staff was made off a spear without its tip seemed to attest to that. But he didn’t seem to be in fighting condition, as he was leaning heavily on the staff as his bandaged legs didn’t seem capable of supporting his weight.
“E-Excuse me, I was wondering if I could have some water?” The man’s voice was deep, and Jukai could easily imagine it being booming and commanding, but right now it just sounded cracked and defeated.
“Just water?” Jukai asked guardedly. In these times of war, farmers often became desperate enough to become bandits. This man might have limited use of his legs, but he looked strong and stout and he could probably really do some damage with that staff.
“I’m not here to rob you!” The man said, almost reading his thoughts. He then seemed to deflate. “Or perhaps I am. Maybe I’m here to steal water.”
“Well…” Jukai decided that even if this man was a thief, he was too honest. “I cannot lay claim to the water, as it comes from the sky and the ground and it belongs to everyone and no one. Help yourself to as much as you’d like.”
A faint shadow a smile crossed through the man’s lips. “Thank you.”
He waved over to someone in the darkness and two figures hesitatingly stepped into the light: a child and a woman dressed in rags. Jukai could immediately see that the child was the best fed of the three and he guessed the couple were the parents and had been giving all the food they could muster to their child.
He watched the family draw water from the well in his yard and take long drinks of water, making him wonder how long they had been travelling. All three seemed completely dusty, exhausted and malnourished.
Jukai was torn. He wanted to help and there was a time he would not have hesitated to invite strange people into his house, bandits or not. That was time when he truly did not care whether he lived or died and might even have welcomed being attacked, for he felt he deserved it. But now he was a parent and he had to care of himself to be able to take care of his son. Were these people a threat? Did he have enough food to feed three more mouths? If he invited them to stay, how long would it be before they left?
It’s a harsh world that makes me doubt the intentions of a starving family. Jukai felt ashamed that he distrusted despairing people.The war had created countless refugees like this family, miserably wandering the countryside until they found better conditions or dropped dead from starvation.
Just then he felt someone tug at his sleeve, Hyakkimaru was beside him. Even though he was wearing a mask, Jukai could sense his son’s look was quizzical. He suddenly remembered that Hyakkimaru had the odd ability to know when people were being aggressive and deceitful. Whatever sense allowed Hyakkimaru to “see” also told him something about people’s dispositions, and it had allowed him to escape being bullied by ignorant townspeople. Jukai had observed him tense up and duck out of the way from unwarranted aggression enough times to know Hyakkimaru could perceive something, even if he could not hear.
And right now the teen was looking at this family as calmly as he observed birds or flowers, there was no hint of mistrust in his demeanor. So Jukai decided to trust them as well.
“Would you like to come in? You all look tired and hungry. I do not have much, but we can share some food.”
Hibukuro tensed up again when he heard the stranger’s suggestion. Why would someone offer food and shelter to intruders? What was his game? He’d had enough of sleazy men offering to buy a night with his wife for money, or worse, his child. With the help of his wife they’d certainly done a number on that last one, though it was more the pity he didn’t even have the money he’d offered. It was a small consolation to leave him without any teeth.
He took another long look at the stranger. He did not seem like a farmer, but he did not seem like a samurai either, his clothes were too shabby. A merchant perhaps? His clothes and his home seemed humble, but not destitute. The man probably knew a trade which kept him afloat in these desperate times. Maybe he really had enough food to share? From the looks of it, this man lived alone with that boy, presumably his son.
“We don’t take charity.” He said with a gruff voice. The stranger’s face looked downcast, but understanding. Had his offer been real? “But I will gladly work in exchange for food.”
“Ah, I don’t have anything that needs to be done right now, especially not at this hour. Why don’t...why don’t you three stay the night and tomorrow morning we can talk?”
Hibukuro and Ojiya exchanged glances. It was a tempting offer, almost too good to be true. They were hungry, cold and weary to the bone. But they also knew that one mistake could end this family’s long fight for survival.
It was Dororo who first stepped forward, though not to enter the house, but to get a better look at the teen standing next to the bearded man. Dororo had never seen a person like this before, with a unnaturally still and unemotional face, bandages that went from his neck to his chest and presumably the rest of his torso, and arms and legs with what appeared to have wooden joints. Was this even a real person, or a doll come to life? Somehow Dororo knew instinctively that this was indeed a person. He felt that he should be scared of seeing someone who was missing so many parts; but after seeing the rotting bodies of the battlefields, the dessicated corpses of starving peasants and even the yokai who enjoyed feasting on the cadavers and the negative emotions equally, his strongest emotion was curiosity.
The teen also regarded him, though his expression remained unnaturally neutral. He then turned around and walked deeper into the house, stopping only briefly to look at Dororo over his shoulder. Dororo took this as an invitation to follow, so he did.
“Dororo!” Ojiya cried admonishingly before he could step into the threshold. The boy stopped and turned to look at his mother.
“Are we going in or not, mama?”
Ojiya looked at her husband again, and this time he gave her the smallest resigned nod. She looked at the bearded stranger and bow deeply to him, and put her hand on the back of Dororo’s head so he would bow as well.
“Thank you for your hospitality, please continue to treat us kindly.”
“I am Hibukuro, this is my wife Ojiya and my son Dororo. We are in your debt. Well, at least until tomorrow.”
“I am Jukai, please come inside.”
Dororo heartily ate the stew of burdock root, carrots and barley that he was given and wondered why the bearded man apologized for not having anything better. Compared to what he had been eating with his family in the last few months, this was a feast! What did the bearded guy think his family expected, rice? Ha! As if they were royalty.
What made him the happiest was seeing that there was enough for his parents to have their own share. Even though his parents tried to hide it, he knew that they often lied to him about having already eaten. Dororo could not lie as easily about not being hungry, and when he did, his parents did not believe him. But there were no lies tonight, because there was enough for everyone!
When his bowl was clean and his tummy full he finally took a moment to truly look at his surroundings. The house was small and somewhat crammed with tools, books, clay jars and prostheses for arms and legs. It seemed odd that there were so many when the only person that needed them already had three or four attached to him.
Him. Dororo looked at the teen sitting cross legged across from him. By now he was fairly certain that face was a mask. What a curious person! Could he even talk?
“I’m Dororo! What’s your name?”
“Ah, this is my son Hyakkimaru. Sorry, he cannot talk.”
“Why is he wearing a mask?”
“To protect his face.”
“He...has a condition that affects his skin.”
“What sort of condition? Did he get burned? Is it something contagious? Was he born like that? How did he lose his arms? How can he stand if his legs are fake? What-”
“Dororo! That’s enough!” His father’s reprimand forced Dororo to shut up, but he was still brimming with questions.
To his annoyance his parents wished the bearded man and his son goodnight before he had a chance to ask anything else. He would have to find out more tomorrow.
Dororo woke up before his parents, not too long after dawn, though he was so comfortable he almost did not want to get up. Sleeping in a house was so much better than the outdoors, not least because he did not have to worry about wolves. His curiosity got the better of him, and he wanted to see more of this strange house. He carefully lifted his mother’s arm off him and got up as quietly as he could.
He started creeping around, wondering what his parents would do when they woke up. Would they stay a while? Or move again and keep trying to survive in the countryside? Staying here might be nice, but he had no idea how long the seemingly benign stranger would allow it. His parents did not seem to quite trust him, so Dororo would keep his distance as well. Caution is the key to survival . Picking up some books he couldn’t read, he silently wished there was a place all three of them could feel safe.
He looked up and saw a face that he recognized from yesterday. Or rather, half a face. The young teen with the mask was looking at him from outside the house, more than half his body hidden by the sliding door.
Dororo did not move for a second, trying to puzzle what Hyakkimaru was doing. Was he mad he was touching things without permission? But the teen was simply staring at him, not moving to stop him or or even come inside. Dororo put the book down and took a tentative step towards him. The other boy immediately disappeared from view.
Dororo froze again, staring intently at the spot where Hyakkimaru had been. Soon enough, he saw that sliver of a face again. As soon as he did, he took several steps forward, until the teen ducked away again.
Smiling now, Dororo waited until he was sure Hyakkimaru was peeking inside again and he sprinted forward with all his might. He was not fast enough, and by the time he reached the sliding door, Hyakkimaru had run along the outside of the house, quite out of his reach. Now he was looking at Dororo with his hand on the corner, clearly ready to run again.
Dororo was about to oblige him when he noticed something by his feet. A small, loosely tied, cloth bundle.
He reached down and opened it and was delighted to see it was full of ripe persimmons. He immediately devoured one, not caring that the sticky juice was running down his chin and his hands. He was about to bite into the second one when a thought gave him pause. He looked at the figures of his sleeping parents and tied the cloth bundle closed. He silently left the bundle at his father’s feet. Food tastes better when you share it with your family.
He went over the well and pulled on the rope to draw up some water to wash his face. Unfortunately for Dororo, the bucket was full, making it extremely heavy. Try as he might, he could not empty the bucket to a volume he could draw up. He struggled to use his entire body weight to no avail when a shadow blocked out the early morning sun over him. Dororo tried not to be startled, but it was surprising that someone with wooden limbs could move so quickly and so quietly.
And Hyakkimaru definitely had wooden limbs. As he took the rope from Dororo, he braced his leg against the well to give himself some leverage. Up close, Dororo could see that the leg was well crafted, made of sturdy wood and expertly polished. But it was also full scratches and cuts and even what appeared to be bite marks. What on earth had been gnawing on Hyakkimaru? Dororo also noticed was that the right leg didn’t seem to be a prosthetic. At the very least, it was covered in bandages like his neck and chest.
Hyakkimaru finished drawing up the water and passed the brimming bucket to Dororo, who almost buckled under its weight. Dororo set it down and rinsed his face and hands and then looked up at Hyakkimaru’s face, or rather his mask.
“Why did you come help me? I didn’t ask you to!” His mutter sounded angry but his bravado was fake; he mostly wanted to see if the older boy could be provoked easily. Hyakkimaru remained silent, facing Dororo but not really looking at him. In fact, his eyes did not seem to focus on anything.
Curious, Dororo waved a hand in front of Hyakkimaru, and his eyes did not follow it. His eyes were fake as well! But then how did he know Dororo had been chasing him?
Dororo was simply bursting with curiosity about this odd fellow. He furtively took a swipe at him, trying to grab the edge of his sleeve. Hyakkimaru moved out of the way in a fluid movement without hesitation.
“So you can see!” Dororo accused loudly, breaking the morning silence.
Hyakkimaru did not answer, he did not even appear to have heard. But he kept “looking” at Dororo and did not move from his spot.
The young thief made a much more audacious swing to grab Hyakkimaru and again the teen moved out of the way expertly, though he was forced to take a step backwards this time. Emboldened, Dororo started chasing Hyakkimaru around the yard, not really thinking of what would happen if he actually caught him.
The sounds of childish shrieking and laughing woke Ojiya up. She was surprised, because it was something she had not heard in a long time. For a moment she was completely disoriented, not remembering where she was. But as the world came into focus, she looked outside and saw her son chasing that odd boy they’d met yesterday. And then the boy chasing her son. They were running back and forth in the yard, without a care in the world, playing.
Playing. Like children.
Ojiya felt tears pricking her eyes and she tried hard to hold them in. Dororo was happy. Dororo was acting like a child his age. Dororo let out a scream of joy as he got captured and lifted over Hyakkimaru’s head.
Ojiya let the tears fall freely on her cheeks, deciding this was something really worth being excited over. The war had taken a lot of things from them, but her son’s happiness and innocence was not among the things they lost.
As she hastily shook her husband awake, she noticed that someone else was watching the scene, the generous stranger who had let them stay over, Jukai. His face was lot like hers, shock and delight alternating while he looked like he might cry as well.
He caught her eye and both parents, though strangers, shared a moment of mutual understanding.