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Hungry Ghosts

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The hissing of steam was an unwelcome background to an already irritating lecture. Women in fancy dresses shuffled in the front row, the men on their arms fat grain merchants of an affable-looking nature. The steam hissed from a new-fangled automatic organ, the next attraction after him and the rifle. Nathan hated this fucking job. Luckily, he'd just been fired.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this rifle has saved my life on many an occasion. It has fallen to me ..." Nathan squinted to read the prompt card through a haze of alcohol, "It has fallen to me to serve my duty as one of those who guard our wild frontier. The Red man as you know is a savage creature, and many's the time I've seen his shape by the flickering light of a single fire and been ... mighty glad of this rifle in my hands. The conditions on the frontier ... Hell, let's not get into that!" He injected a note of cheer into his voice. "Technical specifications! The Smith and Wesson automatic rifle mark two can fire 3 rounds a second, reloads with ease! You cock it like this," he cocked it, "Safety catch off! Aim taking account of the backlash which sadly plagues this weapon!" What the hell, why not, "And fire!" Nathan shot four times over the head of the crowd, taking out the steam-powered pipe organ neatly. The irritating noise stopped, to his satisfaction. The noise of the outraged and frightened crowd grew ever louder however. "That's all, folks, if you want to place any orders or ask a question consult Mr Thompson over there!" He pointed to the gun merchant and people shied out of his way. Thompson ducked as Nathan turned toward him, and Nathan realised he was still aiming the rifle.

Backstage, while Nathan finished the whisky, Thompson yelled at him. "Get out! I don't want to see your face here again! You cost me a fortune in drink, you scare the customers...!" Thompson was rarely a shouty man, but when he did he sounded a bit like a chipmunk. Squeak, squeak, squeak. "And you can forget about your back wages! I've lost that amount in sales right now! No-one's going to buy from a company advertised by a, a lunatic!"
That was enough. Nathan tossed his glass away and leaned into the rat's body space, poking an unsteady finger into his chest. "I'm not mad. D'you hear me? I'm not a lunatic! You can keep your bloody wages but don't ever call me that again. Not if you want to keep your tongue inside your mouth because I will cut it off."
Thompson let out a faint squeal of terror and watched mutely as Nathan walked by him and out the door.

A familiar-looking Irishman was waiting for him outside the theatre. "So, you got yourself fired from another job. Lucky I'm here to tell you of an opportunity that could be the making of us both!"
"Hey, Sergeant Gant! Haven't seen you in years, man! What've you been up to? Still in the army?"
"Ah, I've got nine lives, sir. Was with General Custer through the whole Indian campaign, Little Bighorn included."
"I've heard that was a cock-up."
"Worse when you were on the ground. We didn't even know whose cock-up it was, his or the Indians. But I got my luck from the Devil himself and so did the other twenty or so lads who survived with me. Speaking of luck, you and I have a piece of it coming up. Our old boss Colonel Bagley found a Japanese gent willing to pay us five times our normal wages for a few months' work."
"Doing what?"
"Training their army."

***

Nathan woke from an uneasy sleep to the sound of screaming. For a moment, he didn't know where he was. Then he reached for his pistol, found nothing, stood up in a panic and banged his head on one of the low roof-beams of his captors' house. Nathan sank to the floor again, dizzy. He remembered, and wished that he hadn't. The screaming resolved itself into the sound of a kettle boiling next door. He could hear it through the thin paper walls of his prison.

The fainter screaming in his mind continued though, emerging out of a nightmare to haunt him in the day. Nathan pressed his hands to his ears, futilely trying to block it out. Could it be the fever? A darker thought occurred, one that came to him more and more often these days. Was he going mad? No. Dear Lord please no. Nathan kept seeing glimpses in his mind, memories of the screamers - an Indian woman and her baby. Riding them down, again and again, the mother's screams cut off by a bullet in the throat, the baby's cries going on and on... "Sake!" He shouted, trying to draw someone's attention. A drink, just a little drink would sort this out. Put it all away, shut it out. "Please, sake!" They'd given it to him before, he seemed to remember. When he was having stitches. They'd do it again.

A young samurai poked his head round the door. He smiled at Nathan, seeming to be greatly amused. "Sake? Ha ha, sake!"
"Yes. Give me some sake, give it to me." The samurai went to another room and conducted an incomprehensible conversation with the lady of the house. Nathan could glimpse them through the half-closed door. The samurai said some pleasantry and started to pour a glass of sake for Nathan, but the lady dashed his hand away, pouring the liquor onto the fire. No! The pair argued a while, then the samurai bowed in compliance. The lady of the house saw Nathan watching her through the door, glared at him, then closed it.

That night his thirst was worse, the dreams coming on stronger. Nathan called out several times, but received no sign that anyone was listening. He kept seeing a girl running out of a burning tent, half-dressed and crying, then a bullet taking her in the shoulder. Was it from his rifle? Did he shoot her? Nathan couldn't even remember the raid it happened in. But she turned her burning face to his, accusing, until he wished he had his pistol to end the torment. This life was worthless, after all. What of any good had he done in it? He'd just gotten his men killed, along with Sergeant Gant, his last friend.

The lady of the house came in, looking at him furiously. Nathan didn't repeat his plea for sake. He knew she wouldn't listen, and he would not be reduced to begging these people. He would not. She said something slowly, deliberately, that had their word for 'children' in it, he thought. Oh. His shouts must have been keeping the young ones awake. At that moment, he felt incredibly ashamed. He had meant to keep silent, or apologise to her, but what came out instead was a desperate whisper. "Kill me."

Perhaps it was his imagination, but her eyes momentarily softened. Then she shut the screen door and left him to his nightmares.

***

When he'd recovered his health sufficiently, a stone-faced swordsman escorted Nathan to a meeting with the samurai leader. "Can you understand what I'm saying?" Nathan asked the man idly.
No response.
"Are you here to guard me?" He'd seen the way the village men looked at him. If they got Nathan on his own, they'd probably make short work of him, weak as he was.
No response.
"You aren't much of a talker, are you?"
No response.

Katsumoto greeted him courteously, like a guest. "Ah. You are settling into our village, then? I hope Taka is treating you well."
"You speak English!"
"Yes. In fact, I was hoping to practice my conversation skills with you. What is your name?"
"Is that why you kept me alive? To practice your English!" This was unbelievable.
"I am Katsumoto. I am the leader of this village."
"You won't learn anything from me. This conversation is over."

A day or so went by. The nightmares still continued, but that was normal. Otherwise, Nathan was pretty well healed. He began going for short walks around the village, stretching his legs, trying to recover his strength. Wherever he went, the silent swordsman followed. "You have no idea what I'm saying, do you?"
No response.
"You, my friend, are an oriental asshole."
No response.
"I mean, you wear a skirt. You're just a big woman, aren't you?"
No response.

Katsumoto was still incredibly polite. Sneaky tactics, trying to soften him up or something. "Greetings. I see you have been exploring our village."
"A little."
"You should know that you cannot escape. The passes are closed with snow. You must stay here over the winter."
Son of a bitch. How long were these people planning on keeping him? "Why don't you kill me?"
"I want to have conversation with you."
"Well, this is it. This is all the conversation you're getting."
"I still have not learnt your name."
"And you won't."
"In Japan it's considered extremely impolite for someone to not introduce themselves. Even to an enemy."
Why did these people make him feel so ashamed? "...I'm Nathan. Captain Nathan Algren."
"You are a high rank, a leader?"
Nathan snorted. "No."
"A low rank, then?"
"Middle rank."
"Ah, middle rank." Katsumoto smiled.

More days went by. Nathan spent them watching the villagers, seeing how they spent their time. He watched a young man, an archer, practising in a high field. The archer didn't even seem to pay attention to where he was shooting, but got a bullseye every time. Other samurai spent hours just *sitting*, Chinaman-fashion, for what purpose Nathan couldn't fathom. They must get so bored. Nathan's guard still followed him everywhere. Perhaps the man was there to keep him from escaping. Maybe there was a road Katsumoto wasn't telling him about, a way to get out of here. Nathan started exploring the fringes of the village, going as far as he could in every direction. If there was a way out, he didn't find one.

The swordsman escorted Nathan to another meeting with Katsumoto. "How are you today? I hope you keep well." Katsumoto seemed genuinely solicitous.
Nathan was tired of this."What is the purpose of these 'conversations'? What do you want? Why are you keeping me here!" He raised his voice in anger, and the silent swordsman dashed in, weapon out ready to behead him. Of course, what an idiot he'd had been. The man wasn't his bodyguard or his jailer. He was Nathan's executioner. But Katsumoto stopped him with a hand gesture. The swordsman bowed and left the room. Katsumoto continued the conversation as if nothing had happened.
"I want to learn."
"I'm not going to tell you about the army."
"Who said I wanted to learn about that?" Katsumoto paused for a long moment, seemingly lost in thought. "Why did you come here from America?"
"... The pay was good."
"Money is important to you?"
"Keeps body and soul together, I guess."
"You have such a strange way of talking, Algoren-san. Sometimes I cannot understand you."
"Um, I meant it stops you from starving. Keeps your soul in your body."
"Soul is ghost? Spirit?"
"Yes."
"Is it not more important to nourish your spirit, than to over-indulge your body?"
"You sound like a missionary."

Nathan kept chatting to the swordsman as he made his walks around the village. It amused him to talk to someone who had no idea what he was saying. Whose answers couldn't perplex him like Katsumoto's. "So, have you ever been to the big city? Edo?"
No response.
"Or maybe you've just spent your whole life in this little village. Going out occasionally to destroy a train or some other symbol of civilised progress."
No response.
"Do you have any armour? I bet you have armour."
No response.
"I bet your helmet makes you look like a dick."

The start of his next conversation with Katsumoto was amazingly direct for the Japanese, insulting in fact. "Why do you drink so much?" The warlord raised a curious eyebrow.
"What? It wasn't much, and anyway that's none of your damned business!"
"Pardon my intrusion, but are you trying to forget something?"
"I'm not going to talk to you about this."
"Sake costs money, you know. Money is important to you. Your hostess finds she cannot buy enough sake for you and keep her house also."
" ... I'm sorry." What an asshole he was. No wonder Taka hated him. Nathan hadn't even thought of the cost to her of his habit. "I didn't realise - she should've said something. I'll stop, I'll try to stop."
"What are you trying to forget?"
Might as well say it. The man seemed to have infinite patience. "What I did in the Indian wars."
"A true warrior has no shame for his actions."
"You have no idea what I did! No idea!" Nathan's words were startlingly loud in the quiet of the temple. Katsumoto made no response. The silence went on for what seemed like an age, until the samurai broke it.
"Have you heard the story of the man haunted by an angry ghost? It is a Zen story."
"Zen? What does that mean?"
"You could think of it as a religion, if you like. Do you want to hear the story?" Katsumoto sounded as if he didn't care either way.
"Why not. I haven't got anything else to do."
"A young man married a beautiful woman, and they were very happy. Then the woman got sick and was about to die. She told the young man, 'Don't marry again. My love for you is too great for me to let you do that. If you marry again I'll come back as a ghost and haunt you, so you'll never have a minute's peace.' Then she died. The young man mourned her for a decent length of time, then he began to live his life again. He fell in love and got engaged to another woman, despite his promise to his wife. Every night after the engagement ceremony he dreamed of his dead wife. He even began to see her in the daytime. She would repeat things to him, whole conversations from their past that at the time had seemed sweet but now served as a reproach and a sadness to him. The dead wife knew where he worked and where he slept at night, even when he changed rooms to try to trick her. The young man grew thin and disturbed. He couldn't sleep properly and he felt constantly guilty because of the apparition. Eventually he grew so desperate he went to a Zen master, Basuo, and asked him for help exorcising the spirit. Basuo asked him the particulars of the case, thought it over, and replied, 'This is a clever ghost. Really, you should admire this ghost. She knows wherever you go and has an excellent memory of your past. Tonight, compliment her on her cleverness. Then take a large handful of soy beans from a sack. Tell her, if she's so clever, she should know how many soy beans you hold in your hand.' The young man thanked the Zen teacher, and went to do as he was instructed. At a late hour of night when the ghost appeared, he was waiting with a handful of soy beans. 'You know a lot, dear wife. If you know so much, perhaps you can tell me how many soy beans I hold in my hand?' The dead wife vanished. She never appeared again."
"So it was some kind of spell to get rid of the ghost? The Zen master was a magician?" Despite himself, Nathan had gotten involved in the strange story.
"No!" For once, Katsumoto looked angry. "The dead wife was an - how do you say it? - an illusion, caused by the young man's guilt. When he realised she knew only what he knew, that she was just a creature of his mind, she lost her power over him."
"I don't understand. You mean she wasn't real?"
"She was his guilt. That is all."

Giving up sake was hard. He'd already cut down, because Taka kept so little of it in the house, but cutting down wasn't the same as stopping cold. Nathan started going on long walks from sunrise to sunset, round the hills and forests, to distract himself. The old swordsman still followed him wherever he went. "I bet you're real pissed off with me. You've got child-minding duty while the rest of your friends get to go practice duelling or sitting still in a field for hours."
No response from the old samurai.
"Bet you're wishing I'd run away, or top myself or something."
No response.
"Bet you wish you had a real belt to put those swords on, not just through the tie of your lady dress."
No response.
"Have you ever been so lonely that it hurts?"
No response.

At the now-regular meetings in the temple, Katsumoto seemed concerned for Nathan's health. "Taka says you do not sleep well. I hope you are not troubled by cold."
"No. It's not a problem." Maybe Katsumoto took such care over him because he wanted to do a prisoner exchange or something. In that case, he was jack out of luck. Colonel Bagley would gladly let him die rather than ransom him. Well, he wasn't going to tell Katsumoto that.
"Taka says you say things in your sleep."
"Sorry. I hope I'm not disturbing her household." He still remembered the night when she'd reproached him for crying out and waking the children.
"I know something to help improve your sleep. If you want."

"It must have been an hour by now. I'm getting cramps!" This had been a bad idea. That cross-legged sitting still the samurai all did looked comfortable enough, until you did it too long and your legs seized up.
"No, it is still noon. You have been sitting for barely a moment."
Nathan tried to reposition himself and relax. Just sit still, it couldn't be that hard, right? He wondered whether the big statue in the temple was real gold or not. It looked like a man with long ears, sitting in one of these positions, real peaceful. Nathan looked at it and tried to pretend that he was a statue too. God, this was boring. Long minutes passed. "Has it been an hour now?"
"No."
"... How about now?"
"No!" Katsumoto was actually laughing. "Your mind is like a monkey. It is like the mind of a small child."
"Listen, maybe I'm just not cut out for this," Nathan started getting up. Katsumoto put a gentle hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down.
"Do not be discouraged. Everyone starts out like this. You must learn to clear your mind of thoughts. To control your mind, you must be able to not think of anything."
"Don't think of anything. How is that even possible?"
"Let the thought come to you, then let it drift past you. Do not seize hold of it."
All right. Let the thoughts drift past. Clear my mind. Wonder what's for supper? The vegetables Taka fries are really good. I should ask her what they are. Maybe I could take some home - wait, I'm thinking! Stop it, stop it. Right, stop thinking. ... I wonder what happened to my diaries. They're probably fuelling some Nipponese fire right now. They must've been taken off me after I passed out. But they weren't in my clothing when Taka gave it back to me - no, another thought! I should search the house, perhaps Taka put them away somewhere. She doesn't like me, maybe she got rid of them, wait, stop ... I could really use some sake right now. Or maybe a dram of whisky. Or rum, that'd do. Good hot grog on a cold day - Oh, that was another thought, stupid! OK, this time I'm going to really let go ....... Hey, it's working! I didn't think of anything for ages back then! Oh, damn, I ruined it. Try again ...
A touch on his shoulder brought Nathan back to reality. Katsumoto bowed. "Your time is up. You have sat for half an hour, very good for a beginner."
"That didn't feel like - was that a half hour?"
"Try to clear your mind like this before you go to sleep, and you will begin to control your dreams."
"Thanks."

***

Just before the battle, the silent swordsman approached him. Nathan's erstwhile guard and jailer had a strange expression on his face. Nathan addressed the man in Japanese. "What is it? I'm sorry, I'm a little busy."
The man replied in fluent English. "I wanted to say to you, yes, sometimes I have been so lonely that it hurt. But I think you are not lonely now. You have your brothers with you."
For a moment, Nathan was too stunned to respond. "Uh, you speak English?"
The samurai bowed in answer.
"Then - all this time - "
"Your conversation was very amusing at times."
"I'm sorry I insulted you. It was before - it was before a lot of things."
"There is no need to apologise." The samurai walked away.

"Just when I think you people can't surprise me any more..." muttered Nathan.

***

"Sorry to interrupt, gentlemen, but I have something for the Emperor." Nathan walked through the now-silent chamber stiffly, aching with the wounds of a dozen bullets. But the worst wound was to his soul. What did his body matter? It reminded him of something Katsumoto had said to him once, it seemed like a long time ago. You need to take care of your soul more than your body. Your soul is your honour. Thinking of Katsumoto made his soul ache worse, so he could hardly bear it.

The American trade delegation stared as he slowly approached the Emperor's chair. Advisor Omura spoke first. "What are you doing here? You are insulting our guests, and the Emperor himself. He cannot see you."
A faint but regal voice came from the shadows of the Emperor's covered chair. "Approach, Nathan Algoren."
"But your Highness! The trade treaty!" spluttered Omura, and then switched to Japanese to make a heated plea to the Emperor, who ignored him completely.
"What are you here for?" asked the Emperor directly. His eyes scoured Nathan, seeming to see everything, like the calm omniscient statues of the Buddha.
Nathan knelt and presented him with the sword. Katsumoto's sword. "Your Highness, I have brought this for you. The one who owned it is dead, and I am sure he would have wanted it to come here." That was no lie. Katsumoto had always been scrupulously correct about such things. Even though he desperately wanted to keep the sword, Nathan knew this was where it belonged.
"I see." His expression remained mask-like but the Emperor turned a little paler.
"How did he die?"
In my arms. On my sword. The most painful thing Nathan had ever done. He couldn't discuss it. Not without breaking down. "Let me tell you instead about how he lived."
The Emperor nodded understanding.

The story came hesitantly, bit by bit, until he had laid it all out. Only after the telling was over did Nathan realise that he'd been crying. Awkwardly, Nathan dashed at the tears with the sleeve of his dress-uniform, pretending they didn't exist. The Emperor looked almost on the verge of tears too, his mask slipping. Nathan finished, "Katsumoto was a good man. A great man. I truly believe that he defied you only in an attempt to defend you from your enemies. He wanted to stop Japan destroying her old traditions. That was all." His hands were trembling now from the effort of holding up the sword.
"He was ... very loyal. In his way."
"And I am loyal to him." The request stuttered out. "If you were to ask me to kill myself now, to honour him, I would not refuse." Please ask. Please. Nathan would get the courage for it somehow and then he could finally rest from this constant heart-pain.
"... No. But I will do something else." He took the sword from Nathan's hands and remained silent for a while in thought.
Advisor Omura broke in at last, scowling, having restrained himself throughout the conversation. "Your Highness, the Americans are waiting - "
"They can wait forever. I will not sign the treaty. It is not in the best interests of Japan."
"But- but-"
"Do you care for my honour, Mr Omura?"
"Of- of course your Highness! I would do anything for you!"
"Then you won't mind giving up your lands and titles. You are exiled from the court. Your son will take your place."
"What? No!"
"Or I could order you to do what this gentleman has just offered me of his own free will." He offered Omura the sword, hilt-first.
"No, no of course, I'll do as you say!"
The Emperor looked at his former advisor with utter contempt. "You were never worthy to wash Katsumoto's feet. I see that now."

The American delegation were casting puzzled looks in their direction, as the conversation was conducted entirely in Japanese. The Emperor gestured to his guards, then spoke in English. "I cannot sign the treaty. You will go now."
There were angry words from the diplomats, but the Emperor remained obstinate. Like a block of stone, he watched as they left the chamber, along with the disgraced Omura, hustled roughly by the ceremonial guards. Everyone left, even the other guards, although there must have been one stationed just outside the door. The Emperor and Nathan were left alone. There was a long silence. Nathan felt his legs begin to throb as he continued to kneel in front of the Emperor, and prayed for the strength to remain upright. Then the Emperor addressed him again. "Now," he said, "We will talk a little."
"What do you want to talk about, your Highness?"
"Katsumoto was my bad mistake." He paused. "I can talk of my mistake to you, because you are a Westerner. You do not understand. I am the incarnation of a god, my ancestor. I am not meant to make mistakes. But ... I am trapped. My country has to become modern to survive. I have seen pictures of the armies of the world, and I realise that we are small, easy to destroy. This hurts my pride, and it must change. But the cost - the cost is so great."
"Can't you bring the samurai back? Take back the law against them?"
"I cannot stop some things. The samurai cannot return, or I will fight this battle again and again. They do not belong here any more."
"I understand." Nathan's heart was heavy. "I don't want to be in this world either, your Highness. Can I request again - "
The Emperor cut him off with a gesture. "No." More softly, he continued, "You were meant to survive. You are a reminder to me that what happened to Katsumoto and his army should never happen again. Our traditional ways are so strong they took an ignorant barbarian, a Westerner, and turned him into a samurai. The old ways are still powerful. Someone needs to remind people of that, before it is forgotten forever."

***

Nathan was carried in a palanquin but even so the travel jolted him painfully. He knew he was travelling too soon after his injuries, but he couldn't bear to stay in Edo any more, now that he had discharged his duty. Taka took care of him for a long time, tending his wounds just as she had in the past. Despite himself, Nathan started to recover. Coming back to the village had felt like coming home, even though many of the houses were empty and the young men were gone. He seemed to see Katsumoto everywhere, forever disappearing just ahead, in the next house, at the practice ground, slipping behind a tree. Throughout the year Nathan would catch glimpses in the corner of his eye, and then Nathan would turn and he'd vanish. A ghost.

One day in early Spring Nathan walked up to the temple, the place where his memories of Katsumoto were strongest. The soy beans felt heavy in his hand, damp like the earth. Taka had given him a puzzled look when he took them from their store. "To lay a ghost," Nathan said, and she looked like she almost understood.

Standing there in front of the golden Buddha statue, Nathan just felt foolish. He didn't know what to say. Opening his hand, some of the beans spilled out onto the floor, making a dull sound like rain. "I miss you," Nathan said eventually. "I was bringing these so you'd stop haunting me. Like that story you told. I still remember it." The wind sighed in the roof, but there was no other sound. "Go on, then. Count the beans." Nothing. The calm face of the Buddha stared down at him, unimpressed. He had to tell the rest, tell it all. "I - I love you. Loved you. I said you were my brother, but you were more than that to me. You had my heart. I never said, but it's the truth. I wish I could of said, but I was afraid."
The wind blew a pink scatter of cherry blossoms in across the temple floor.
"I wish I'd said."
And suddenly in the rush of the wind there was a voice, a face. For the last time, Katsumoto appeared to him, and spoke kindly, softly. "I knew." The wind brushed his face, drying the fresh tears and sending another scatter of blossoms across the floor. "I knew."