I am not certain when the change came about. I’m not positive I ever understood how it all came to pass, those many years ago. It is a curious thing, and if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is that one cannot trust anything that one cannot see, cannot hear, cannot taste or smell or touch.
I am a poet. I am a minstrel. I am a wanderer who skulks the earth, searching for the one true song, the one true poem, the secrets that men die for, that women pine for, that children grow up only to search for all of their lives. I’ve seen them come into this world; I’ve seen them leave it. I have worn many masks in my lifetime. This disguise … it suits me well.
Time passes, and through it all, I’ve seen the best and worst in men. I’ve seen civilizations crumble; I’ve seen mountains fall. I’ve seen the terror of war and the pillage of man—and I stand apart from it.
They call this night Hoshi-Matsuri—Tanabata—the Star Festival. This is not my story, but I am compelled to share it with you.
He was a young prince in this land. Valiant and sure, trained in the ways of the samurai, he stood above all others in a bloodthirsty time when men were brave and women were meek. Men did not fight for love or for beauty; they fought for possession, for might, for power. They waged their hostilities and shed their blood, dying in the battles that were always someone else’s wars. Historians would later name it Sengoku Jidai—the Warring States era. How apropos.
Kaemon—as he came to be known—was born nine months after Tanabata. Akina, his mother, called him her child of wonder. Takeo, his father, called him his heir. He had only one true friend in his youth. Her name was Hoshikita, and she was a curious child. Silver-white hair and pale blue eyes filled with a knowledge that belied her youth, the girl was his constant companion: his dearest friend. Running through the fields of wildflowers, rolling through the summer grass, racing each other over the hills and through the vales, across the footbridge that spanned the Kurobe River, the two spent all their time together.
Inseparable, they were, and while Takeo worried that the children were too close, Akina simply laughed and insisted that they were just children; that Kaemon would grow up fast enough. Was there really any harm in allowing him a few fleeting moments of youth? Though Hoshikita was the daughter of a poor peasant farmer, Kaemon told his father that he would marry her one day. His father ignored the claim, relegating it to little more than the fancy of a young boy. ‘This childhood love, this fool’s dream,’ he thought, ‘it shall pass in time.’
But the world was not a benevolent place. War was rampant and brutal. An uprising in one of the outlying villages lured Takeo away. In his absence, a neighboring daimyo saw it as his opportunity to invade. The infidels set the fields ablaze, burned down the homes of peasants. Seven year-old Kaemon stood in the window beside his mother, eyes stinging from the prevalent smoke as he stubbornly watched for his father’s homecoming. As the sun broke over the eastern horizon, he saw them. The army had returned …
And his father descended on the invaders with a vengeance, showing no mercy, giving no quarter. Takeo’s army fought the trespassers back, drove them into the Kurobe-gawa. The clash of metal, the screams of agony, the rising stench of death colored the pungent air. The frothing water of the mighty river carried the oily slick of battle as bodies fell into the mist, never to rise again.
By the time the sun reached its apex, the battle was over; the land stained black as the Kurobe River surged, awash with the crimson tint of blood. Kaemon darted through the village, intent on one hut. The chaos was disorienting. The sobs of the old mingled with the cries of the young. The acrid fetor of charred flesh and congealed blood hung thick in the air. He found her in the smoldering remnants of the hut on the outskirts of the village—one of the first to be set on fire: the one she called her home.
He never left the funeral pyre as it burned well into the night. Too many people had been lost to the incursion. One little girl couldn’t be allowed special honors. Kaemon blinked, stared through the wafting smoke as a ball of fire in the guise of a shooting star traversed the inky sky, as the weakened moon, pale and lonely, whispered his name in the night. The whisper sounded like Hoshikita’s voice.
The gentleness that Akina treasured in Kaemon was tempered after that day. Tainted by loss, changed forever by the age of wars in which he lived, his days of chasing butterflies in the fields while his mother gathered herbs to treat the sick and injured gave way to hours spent in rigid training. The curiosity of a child was gradually subdued, leaving behind a pensive young man who lived through one battle after another yet still dared to dream of an elusive peace. Hoshikita’s face faded in his memory. Softened by the flow of time, only the sound of her voice still lingered.
He was a dreamer and a poet, but he learned how to fight, how to kill. It was the way of the land, and Kaemon was ever the dutiful son. He knew this to be true, and to that end, he was trained to be fierce, calculating, merciless, but sometimes in the stillness of the darkest nights, Kaemon would gaze into the moonless sky and wonder where she—the lady in the moon—had gone.
Takeo summoned his son one evening, told Kaemon that he need to marry, to uphold tradition. He set out the next morning, vowing to find a woman that would make his family proud: a woman to bear his sons, to ensure his lineage.
Searching for a girl like the one he used to know, Kaemon traveled all over the country. Staring at the moon in the stillness of the night, he smiled sadly, remembered silvery hair and pale blue eyes; eyes the color of the sky that ringed the full moon high above. He hadn’t thought about Hoshikita in so long. He wasn’t even certain why he thought of her now. With the softened image of her face came the doleful ebb of memories of a childhood that ended much too soon.
The moon winked at him as the night breeze whispered his name. The trees sang a soft melody as the river burbled incoherent words.
‘What is it you seek, Kaemon, son of Takeo?’
He sat up slowly; cast his gaze about the clearing for the source of the gentle, sweet voice. He was alone—entirely alone. In the darkness of the night bathed in the light of the full moon suspended just out of his reach, Kaemon drew his knees up, hooked his arms around his legs. “I would give anything,” he whispered, “if I could only find her: my one true love ... my princess ...”
No answer came to him; there was nothing at all. Yet he sat up all night, waiting and wondering, hoping and pondering.
When the first rays of daylight broke over the horizon, Kaemon sighed and shook his head. He was a fool; ten times a fool: waiting in the night for a voice to tell him what he should do.
But night after night, he dreamt of her, of the woman she might have become had she survived. Every dream seemed so real, so vivid that he would awaken in the morning, expecting to find her there. Bitter disappointment was a harsher reality when he realized that it had been only a dream.
For weeks and months he journeyed, searching for the elusive one. He had almost given up hope when he stopped by a tiny village in the northern region. A girl sat outside with the local children gathered around. Telling a story, she smiled; she laughed. Kaemon couldn’t believe his eyes. Could it be her? Was it possible? She was the girl from his dreams, the friend he’d lost years before. The same silvery hair, the same impossibly blue eyes, and when she sensed his perusal, she lifted her chin, leaned her head to the side, smiled at him in the way he’d seen so often in his dreams.
That evening he asked her to marry him. The daughter of the village headman, she would make a good wife. “We’ll be married right away, and then I’ll take you home ... Do you remember the village, Hoshikita?”
The girl seemed confused by his question. She shook her head and frowned. Her face was caught in the half-light of the torches and fires that lit up the village. “Hoshikita?” she repeated. “But my name is Kumi.”
Kaemon looked away as his dream crumbled apart. “Kumi, of course. Hoshikita … was my best friend,” he answered. “She died years ago. You remind me of her.”
“Is that why you wish to marry me?” Kumi asked.
“No,” he assured her. “My father sent me to find a wife. I have looked everywhere, and then I found you.”
She smiled and bowed, appeased by his answer. Kaemon asked himself why he’d lied. As he lay awake in the room he’d been offered, he stared out the open window at the moon. He wasn’t close enough. Slipping from the chamber and through the silent dwelling, Kaemon wandered into the night. The moon hung lower in the sky, so close that might have been able to touch it, to brush it with the tips of his fingers. It was just out of his grasp.
‘She’s not Hoshikita,’ he mused. He’d known this, certainly … or had he? Had he been searching for Hoshikita all along or had he really been hunting for something entirely different? Gazing at the moon, Kaemon scowled at the deceptive beauty. Maybe it wasn’t Hoshikita he was searching for at all. Maybe what he’d been looking for was the woman in the moon; the quiet voice that whispered to him every night. Maybe what he honestly wished for was simply to touch the moon...
The years flowed past, and the voice was dormant. Kumi blessed him with many sons. Kaemon took control of Takeo’s empire. His word was law, and his law was brutal. Anyone foolish enough to transgress against the daimyo was shown no leniency. It was said that no blood ran through Kaemon’s veins. As cold and biting as the harshest winter wind, the man who had once been a poet was changed. The little boy who had played in the fields and had plucked flowers for his mother was gone, replaced by a ruthless leader, both respected and reviled, formidable and fearsome.
Seasons came and seasons passed. The constant circle of life never ended. He felt his body weakening, knew in his heart that the time was drawing ever nearer. The life he knew was slipping away, and as spring moved into early summer, as the sakura trees’ blossoms withered, Kaemon lay in the quiet, alone in his room. At odd moments, he would talk to the shadows; staring into the darkness at beings only he could see.
“Hoshikita … whispered to me,” he told Kumi, grasping her wrist with a surprisingly firm grip.
“Of course she did,” Kumi answered. Gently pulling her arm away from him before slipping into the hall, Kumi shook her head, convinced that he was senile, that he was absolutely losing his mind.
His children stopped coming to see him. They said it was too painful, to see their strong father suffer dementia. They said it was for the best, that Kaemon wouldn’t want them to see him that way. The pretty wording comforted them; allowed them to believe their own delusions.
Agitated late in the night, Kaemon woke from his slumber to the wail of men, the clash of metal meeting metal, the acrid odor of burning things. Rising from his futon as he noted absently that his aches and pains had vanished, he staggered to the window. A muffled cry—ragged and harsh—slipped from his lips as he stared in horror at the scene below; as a shocking sense of déjà vu swept through him.
The village was burning.
It was the same now as it had been so many years go. The same screams, the same anguished groan from weapons that were locked in heated battle, the same funk of burning buildings and scorched flesh.
Lumbering toward the doorway, hobbling down the hallway, past servants who gawked at him as though they couldn’t believe their eyes, Kaemon nearly tumbled down the staircase. The momentum of his body carried him to the door and out into the night. The stars were obscured by rising smoke that lay over the village like a dense blanket.
‘Strange,’ he thought as he stumbled through the burning village. The screams he’d heard from his window were silent. The world was full of nothing but caustic smoke, gamboling flames, crackling wood: splintering, shattering as huts collapsed all around. Still Kaemon kept moving toward the far edge of the village and the little hut where she was waiting for him.
And there she stood, in the center of the hut, hands clasped before her with a secretive grin on her face. Seven year-old Hoshikita’s smile widened as Kaemon drew near. “Come on, Kita! I’ve got to get you out of here!”
“You came for me?” she asked, a disquieting hint of calm wonder in her soft voice.
“Yes, of course! Of course I did! Come on, Kita … You can’t stay here!”
She slipped her tiny hand into his, skipped along beside him as he hurried her out of the hut. He stepped out of the doorway with her in tow as the hut collapsed with a shiver, a groan, a wave of heat and fire.
He had to get her to safety. Glancing back the way he’d come, Kaemon winced and shook his head. The path was engulfed in a wall of flames.
‘Across the river!’ he thought as he spared her a glance. Hoshikita was gazing up at him, as serenely, as peacefully as she ever had. ‘She’ll be safe across the river ... safe from fire ... safe from death ...’
Kaemon’s step faltered as a puzzled frown slipped over his face. A whisper of a thought flitted through his mind, and he paused. ‘But Hoshikita already died … she died long ago, didn’t she?’
“Hurry, Kaemon … It’s coming for us!”
Shaking his head to dispel the sudden weariness that seeped into his body, Kaemon tightened his grip on the little girl’s hand and strode toward the bridge that would lead to safety from the fire.
The rough fabric of his haori burned against his back. Wobbly legs carried him forward as he glanced over his shoulder. He gasped at what he saw. The wall of flames was closing in on him, impenetrable, unbreakable: a mass as solid as flowing lava bearing down on him. The fire wanted to consume him, had gained a skewed sort of life all its own, and it was coming after him … or was it trying to get Hoshikita?
Letting go of the girl only to catch her around the waist and heft her off her feet, Kaemon broke into a sprint—as much of one as he could manage. The bridge wasn’t much further—why did it seem to be moving away?
“You can do it, Kaemon. You were always faster than me.”
They’d made it to the bridge. The wall of fire couldn’t come this far. It wouldn’t be able to cross the Kurobe-gawa. He made it just in time, breaking over the embankment as the raging blaze swelled and hissed. Angry that Kaemon had eluded its wrath, the flames shot high into the sky, as high as the tallest trees in the forest. Spreading up and down the riverbank with an intensity that illuminated the area with the unnatural light as bright as the noon-day sky, the fire seemed to be waiting, albeit impatiently. Kaemon kept running across the wizened wooden planks toward the other side—toward safety.
His toes caught between slats on the bridge, and he stumbled. Hoshikita didn’t make a sound as she flew out of his grasp, landing on her bottom with nothing more than a short grunt. Kaemon slowly pushed himself to his knees. He choked out a hoarse laugh as tears stung his eyelids. “I did it,” he gasped. “I saved you, Kita …”
She stood up slowly and walked over to him, tugged his hand until he followed her. “You didn’t save me,” she whispered, stopping in the middle of the bridge as her little face turned upward, as she stared at the star-washed sky above the filmy light of the undying fire. “You couldn’t save me. I died long ago.”
Kaemon shook his head, brow furrowing as he sank to his knees. “You did, didn’t you? I remember now …” Vision blurring as he struggled to understand, he reached out, touched Hoshikita’s baby-soft skin. “I’m sorry, Kita. I’m so sorry …”
Hoshikita smiled, leaned on his shoulder to press a kiss on his cheek. “I came here tonight to save you; to remind you of the things you used to believe in.”
“I’m so tired. I’m exhausted, and I’m old.”
“You spent your whole life searching for something you never found, didn’t you?”
“Kaemon? Do you still want it?”
He stared at her, and she wiped an errant tear off his cheek with her pudgy little fingers. “Want what?”
“Do you still want to touch the moon?”
Kaemon sank back against the grayed wooden railing and turned his gaze to the moon. “I’m just an ordinary man, Kita. Ordinary men can’t touch the moon.”
She smiled softly, gently, the expression in her eyes so much older than a seven year-old girl’s gaze ought to have been. “You still don’t understand, do you?”
He shook his head.
“You can come with me,” she ventured. “We can run and play, and you can be free. That’s why I came here tonight.”
He stood up slowly, took her hand in his. Hoshikita smiled. “Don’t be afraid of the flames. They won’t hurt you.”
Nodding in understanding, as though his life had led up to this one moment, Kaemon let Hoshikita lead him back the way they’d come: back into the intensity of the fire.
Kaemon’s sons found him lying at the threshold of the footbridge just after the sun rose over the pristine landscape. Carrying his body home as peasants decorated the village square in preparation for the annual Tanabata celebration, none of his sons could understand how Kaemon had been able to get so far from the castle. Old, frail, he hadn’t been able rise from his futon in weeks. They were never certain how he died or why he was smiling, but I knew.
Perhaps an ordinary man cannot touch the moon, but then Kaemon was quite extraordinary...
My name is Hoshikita. This is not my story, but I was compelled to share it with you.