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The 47th Samurai: A Bob Lee Swagger Novelby Stephen Hunter
Showa Year 20, Second Month, 21st Day
A quiet fell across the bunker. Dust drifted from the ceiling. The burnt-egg stench of sulfur lingered everywhere.
It was a private. Takahashi, Sugita, Kanzaki, Asano, Togawa, Fukuyama, Abe — who knew the names anymore? There had been so many names.
"Sir, the shelling has stopped. Does this mean they're coming?"
"Yes," he said. "It means they're coming."
The officer's name was Hideki Yano and he was a captain, 145th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, under Yasutake and Ikeda, attached to Kuribayashi's 109th Division.
The blockhouse was low and smelled of sulfur and shit because the men all had dysentery from the tainted water. It was typical Imperial Army fortification, a low bunker of concrete, reinforced over many long months, with oak tree trunks from what had been but was no longer the island's only oak forest, the sand heaped over it. It had three firing slits and behind each slit sat a Type 96 gun on a tripod, a gunner, and a couple of loaders. Each field of fire fanned away for hundreds of yards across an almost featureless landscape of black sand ridges and marginal vegetation. The blockhouse was divided into three chambers, like a nautilus shell, so that even if one or two were wiped out, the last gun could continue to fire until the very end. It was festooned everywhere with the latest imperative from General Kuribayashi's headquarters, a document called "Courageous Battle Vows," which summed up everyone's responsibilities to the Sphere.
Above all else, we shall dedicate ourselves to the defense of this island.
"I am scared, sir," said the private.
"I am too," said Yano.
Outside, the captain's small empire continued. Six pits with Nambu guns in each, each gun supported by gunner, loader, and two or three riflemen flanked the empire to left and right. In further spider holes were martyrs with rifles. No escape for them; they knew they were dead already. They lived only to kill those ten Americans before they gave their lives up in sacrifice. Those men had it the worst. In here, no shell could penetrate. The concrete was four feet thick, riven with steel rods. Out there a naval shell from the offshore fleet could turn a man to shreds in a second. If the shell landed precisely, no one would have time for a death poem.
Now that the attack was upon them, the captain became energized. He shook off the months of torpor, the despair, the terrible food, the endless shitting, the worries. Now, at last, glory approached.
Except of course he no longer believed in glory. That was for fools. He believed only in duty.
He was not a speech maker. But now he ran from position to position, making sure each gun was properly cocked and aimed, the loaders stood ready with fresh ammunition strips, the riflemen crouched to pick off the errant demon American.
A boy pulled him aside.
"Yes?" What was the boy's name? He could not remember this one either. But these were all good boys, Kagoshima boys, as the 145th was drawn from Kyushu, the home of Japan's best soldiers.
"I am not afraid to die. I am eager to die for the emperor," said the boy, a superior private.
"That is our duty. You and I, we are nothing. Our duty is all."
But the boy was agitated.
"I am afraid of flames. I am so afraid of the flames. Will you shoot me if I am engulfed in fire?"
They all feared the flamethrowers. The hairy beasts were dishonorable. They chopped gold teeth from dead Japanese, they bleached Japanese skulls and turned them into ashtrays and sent them home, they killed the Japanese not decently, with gun and sword — they hated the blade! — but so often from miles out with the big naval shells, with the airplanes, and then when they got in close, they used the horrible hoses that squirted flaming gasoline and roasted the flesh from a man's bones, killing him slowly. How could a warrior die honorably in flames?
"Or the sword, Captain. I beg you. If I burn, behead me."
"What is your name?"
"Sudo. Sudo from Kyushu."
"Sudo from Kyushu. You will not die in flames. That I promise you. We are samurai!"
That word samurai still stiffened the spine of every man. It was pride, it was honor, it was sacrifice. It was worth more than life. It was what a man needed to be and would die to be. He had known it his whole life; he had yearned for it, as he yearned for a son who would live up to it.
"Samurai!" said the boy fervently, now reassured, for he believed it.
Able Company caught primary assault. It was simply Able's turn, and Charlie and Item and Hotel would offer suppressive fire and flanking maneuvers and handle artillery coordination, but it was Able's turn to go first. Lead the way. Semper fi, all that fine bullshit.
There was a problem, however. There was always a problem, this was today's: Able's CO was shaky. He was new to the 28th and rumors had it that a connected father had gotten his son the command. His name was Culpepper and he was a college boy from some fancy place who talked a little like a woman. It wasn't anything anybody could put a finger on, not homo or anything, he just wasn't somehow like the other officers. He was fancy, somehow, from fancy places, fancy houses, fancy parents. Was Culpepper up to it? Nobody knew, but the blockhouse had to go or Battalion would be hung up all day here and the big guns on Suribachi would continue to shatter the beachhead. So Colonel Hobbs assigned his battalion's first sergeant, Earl Swagger, to go along with Captain Culpepper that morning.
"Culpepper, you listen up to the first sergeant. He's old breed. He's been around. He's hit a lot of beaches. He's the best combat leader I have, you understand."
"Yes sir," said Culpepper.
The colonel drew Earl aside.
"Earl, you help Culpepper. Don't let him freeze, keep his boys moving. I hate to do this to you, but someone's got to get them boys up the hill and you're the best I've got."
"I'll get 'em up, sir," said Swagger, who looked like he was about 140 percent United States Marine Corps, chapter and verse, a sinewy string bean of a man, ageless in the sergeant way, a vet of the 'Canal, Tarawa, and Saipan and, someone said, Troy, Thermopylae, Agincourt, and the Somme. They said nobody could shoot a Thompson gun like the first sergeant. He'd fought the Japs in China before the war, it was said.
Swagger was from nowhere. He had no hometown, no memories he shared, no stories of the good old days, as if he had no good old days. It was said he'd married a gal last time home, on some kind of bond tour for the citizens back there, and everybody said she's a looker, but he never pulled pictures or talked much about it. He was all guile, energy, and focus, seemingly indestructible but one of those professionals with what some would call a gleam in his eye who could talk any boy or green lieutenant through anything. He was a prince of war, and if he was doomed, he didn't know it, or much care about it.
Culpepper had a plan.
Swagger didn't like it.
"Begging the captain's pardon, it's too complicated. You'll end up with your people all running around not sure of what to do while the Japs sit there and shoot. I wouldn't break Able down by squads but by platoons, I'd keep a good base of fire going, and I'd get my flamethrowers off on the right, try and work 'em in close that way. The flamethrowers, sir, those are the key."
"I see," said the young man, pale and thin and grave and trying so hard. "I think the men are capable — "
"Sir, once the Japs see us coming, it's going to be a shit storm out there. They are tough little bastards, and believe you me, they know what they are doing. If you expect men to remember maneuver patterns keyed to landmarks, you will be disappointed. It has to be simple, hard, basic, and not much to remember, or the Japs will shoot your boys down like toads on a flat rock. The important goddamn thing is to get them flamethrowers in close. If it was me, I'd send the best blowtorch team up this draw to the right" — they looked at a smudged map at the command post a few hundred yards back — "with a BAR and a tommy-gunner as cover, your best NCO running the show. I'd hold your other team back. Meanwhile, you pound away from your base of fire. Get the bazookas involved. Them gun slits is tiny but a bazooka rocket through one is something the Japs will notice. Sir, maybe you ought to let me run the flamethrower team."
But the colonel said, "Earl will want to lead. Just let him advise, Captain. I need him back this afternoon."
"But — " the young captain protested.
"Sergeant Tarsky is a fine man and a fine NCO. You let him move some people off on the left when we go. He's got to get a lot of fire going, and the people here in front, they've got to be working their weapons too. I need a lot of covering fire. I'll take the blowtorch team up the right. The Japs will be hidden in monkey holes, but I can spot 'em. I know where to look. So the BAR man can hose 'em down from outside their range. We'll get in close and burn 'em out, then get up there and fry that pillbox."
Culpepper hesitated a second, realized this smart, tough, duty-crazed hillbilly from some dead-end flyspeck south of perdition nobody had ever heard of was dead right, and saw that his own prissy ego meant nothing out there.
"Let's do it, First Sergeant."
The Type 92s fired 7.7 mm tracer. White-hot bolts of illumination cut through the mist and the dust. Through the gun slit, you could not see men, not really — but you could sense them, maneuvering a foot at a time through the same chaos. Where the bullets struck, they lifted clouds of black sand.
"There," said the captain, pointing, and the gunner cranked his windage to the right, the finned barrel revolved on its mesh of gears, and the gun rocked, spent cartridges spilled, the tracer lashed, and in the vapors shapes stumbled and went down amid the stench of sulfur.
"Sir," someone yelled from the leftmost gun chamber.
Holding his sword so it would not clatter, the captain ran through the connecting tunnel.
"Sir, Yamaki says he saw men moving off on the left. Just a flash of them moving directly away from our position." Gun smoke filled the room, thin and acrid, eating at nasal tissues, tearing up eyes.
"I couldn't see, sir."
Well, it had to be. The American commander wouldn't move his people directly at the guns. The hairy beasts never did that; they didn't have the stomach and they weren't eager to die. They would die if necessary, but they weren't hungry for it. Glorious death meant nothing to them.
The captain tried to think it out.
He'd either go to his left or right, and you'd think he'd go to his left. There was more cover, the vegetation was thicker, and it was hard to bring direct fire because the ridge was steeper. You were mostly in danger from grenades, but the Americans didn't fear the Japanese grenades, because they were so underpowered and erratic.
The captain tried to feel his opponent. His imagination of a white man was someone impossibly big and hairy and pink. He conceived of a cowboy or a ghost, but he knew there'd be intelligence guiding it. The Japanese had learned the hard way over the years that the Americans may not have had honor but they had intelligence. They weren't stupid, they weren't cowards, and there was an endless supply of them.
It came down to left or right? He knew the answer: the right. He'd go to his right. He'd send the flamethrowers up that way because it was less obvious: there wasn't much cover, he'd run into spider holes, but he had the skill to overcome the spider holes. It seemed more dangerous, but a smart hand would have the advantage if he knew how to use terrain and was aggressive.
"I'll take care of it. You men, keep firing. You won't see whole targets, you'll see shapes. Fire on shapes. Be samurai!"
The captain ran back to the central chamber.
"The little gun," he ordered. "Quickly."
A sergeant brought him the submachine gun called the Type 100, an 8 mm weapon whose central design had been stolen from the Germans. It had a wooden stock, a ventilated barrel, and a magazine fitted horizontally to the left from the breech. They were prizes; there were never enough of them to go around. What we could have done with a million of them! We'd be in New York today! The captain had to lobby General Kuribayashi personally to get one assigned to his position.
He threw on a bandolier hung with pouches full of grenades and spare magazines, buckling it tight to his body. Carefully, he disconnected his sword from his belt, laying it aside.
"I want to ambush the flamethrower attack. I'll intercept them well beyond our lines. Give me covering fire."
He turned, nodded to a private, who unlatched the heavy steel door at the rear of the blockhouse, and scrambled out.
"What's your name, son?"
"MacReedy, First Sergeant."
"Can you shoot that thing?" Earl said, indicating the sixteen pounds of automatic rifle the boy held.
"Yes, First Sergeant."
"How 'bout you, son? Can you keep him loaded and hot?"
"Yes, First Sergeant," said MacReedy's ammo bearer, laden with bandoliers of BAR mags.
"Okay, here's what we're going to do. I'm squirming up the ridge. I'm going to check out the draw. When I see a monkey hole, I'm going to put tracer on it. You're with me in a good prone. Where I put tracer, you put five rounds of ball thirty. Hold tight, stay on my forty-five tracer. Tracer won't go through them logs the Japs use as revetment, but the thirty will, 'cause it's moving three times as fast. Your buddy there's going to feed you mags as you run dry. He'll switch them on you. You got that, son?"
"Got it, First Sergeant," said the assistant gunner.
"Now you blowtorch guys, you hang back. We got to clear this out before I can get you up on the ridge and you can get to work. Okay?"
There was a mumble of reluctant assent from his loose confederation of troops clustered just below the ridge, a couple of low, "Yes, First Sergeant."
"And another thing. Out here, where there's Japs, I'm Earl. Forget all the First Sergeant bullshit. Got it?"
With that Earl began his long squirm. He crawled through volcanic ash and black sand. He crawled in a fog of sulfur-stinking dust that floated up to his nose and tongue, layering him with grit. He held his Thompson tight like a woman, felt the two BAR gunners with him close, and watched as Jap tracer flicked insolently above. Now and then a mortar round landed, but mostly it was dust in the air, cut with flecks of light, so brief, so fast you weren't sure you really saw it.
He was happy.
In war, Earl put everything behind him. His dead, raging father no longer screamed at him, his sullen mother no longer drifted away, he was no longer the sheriff's boy, hated by so many others because they so feared his father; he was nobody but First Sergeant and he was happy. He had the United States Marine Corps as a father and a mother now, and the Corps had embraced him and loved him and nurtured him and made him a man. He would not let it down and he would fight to the death for its honor.
Earl got to the crest of the little ridge and poked his head up. Before him he saw a fold in the sandy soil that led up to the blankness of a higher ridgeline, a rill that was a foothill to Suribachi, which rose behind them, blocking all view of the sea. It was 2/28's job to circle around the volcano, cut the mountain off from resupply, then inch up it and take out the mortars, the artillery emplacements, the artillery spotters, and the spider holes and pillboxes that dotted its scabrous surface. It had to be done one firefight at a time, over a long day's dying.
The landscape of the draw seemed empty, a random groove cut in the black sand, clotted with clump grass and bean vines. The odd eucalyptus bush stood out amid the desolation.
Once he would have led men up and all would have died. But like his peers, he had learned the craft of war.
He looked now for gnarled root groupings in the clump grass and eucalypti, for patches of lemongrass, for small, stunted oak trees, for the Japanese had a genius for digging into them, for building small, one-man forts, impregnable to artillery but at the same time inescapable. There was no such thing as a back door. Thus they would die to kill. Retreat and surrender were terms they did not comprehend.
"You set up, MacReedy?"
"On my fire."
Earl marked the target, thirty yards out, a tuft of vegetation in a crest of black sand that had a too-studied look to it, and he knew a man lurked in a chamber behind the screen of fronds, and he put four rounds of tracer onto it, watching as the neon flickered across the distance and whacked into the green, throwing up clouds of black dust. He was so strong and so salty he could hold the gun with no rise; it never sent .45s careening wildly into space. He could shoot skeet with it and had famously put on an exhibition on shipboard for all the squid officers.
Next to him, MacReedy jacked a heavier .30 caliber burst into the position; these bullets exploded in geysers of angry power when they struck.
"Good work. That boy's gone to his ancestors."
Earl worked the slope. His eyes picked out things few others would have noticed; he put the tracer on them, the BAR kids followed with the heavier .30 caliber ball, and in minutes, the draw seemed clear.
"Now's the hard part. See, the Japs have guys on this side. I mean, facing toward their lines, guys we can't see. That's how their minds work, the smart little monkeys. They been at this a while; they know a goddamn thing or two."
"What's our play, Sergeant Earl?"
"We're going to roll grenades down this slope. I'm going to take the BAR. After the grenades pop, I'm jumping down there. I can pick out the monkey holes and lay fire on them. You move over the ridge and cover me with the tommy. Got it?"
"Earl, you're sure to get yourself killed."
"Nah. No Nip's quick enough to hit old man Earl. Okay, I want the gun loaded and cocked. MacReedy, take the bipod off too. You, get your grenades out. Ready?"
"Yes, Mr. Earl."
"Okay, on my count, pull, pop the lever, then just dump the grenades over the crest. Got it?"
Battle was weather. He ran through clouds of vapor, dust in the air, through layers of sulfur. There was no sun. His boots fought for leverage in the black sand. The thunder pounded, except that it was gunfire. The slope was alive with rounds striking, and it looked like small animals peeping about. Below he could see nothing but dust and shapes scurrying through it, hairy beasts trying to squirm ahead, get within grenade range, always hunted by the whiter tracers his own men fired.
He ran from gun pit to gun pit.
"Keep firing. We'll drive them back. You have ammunition, water? Any wounded?"
The men were wonderful. All believed in the hundred million, all believed in duty to the emperor, all had already made peace with death and sacrifice, saw and believed in its necessity, and would not bolt or flee; they were the best men on earth. Samurai!
"There, to the left!"
He pointed and the Nambu cranked around, sent a burst skittering through some vegetation, and all were rewarded with a rare sight of an enemy rolling out of the brush limply.
"Search for targets, keep shooting, they will tire of dying and fall back soon."
Now Captain Yano reached a last shelf. By geographical oddity, a few feet of ridge lay where the far slope was too severe to negotiate and no trenches had been dug. It was wide open. It had to be crossed.
"Captain, be careful!"
"Long live the emperor," he cried, as if to invoke a higher purpose.
Did he believe it? A part of him did. You gave yourself to it, you accepted your death, even in pain or fire, you embraced the suffering, you longed for the void. You raced through fire, in search of your duty and your destiny.
But another part said, Why?
These fine men, they could contribute so much, they die on a crest of black sand on an island of sulfur that held no meaning at all that could be divined. For the emperor? How many of his men knew that the godlike, all-knowing, all-demanding emperor was a recent invention and that for three hundred years had been the puppet-joke of Edo, while in Kyoto stronger, subtler men ruled and only tolerated an emperor as a useful fiction, a figure around which to build distracting (and therefore helpful) ceremonies?
He knew too: the war is lost. All our armies have been crushed. No island has been successfully defended. We die here for nothing. It would be comic if it weren't so stupid. It's a racket, a jest, for the seven men who run Japan to chortle at over sake.
But still he ran.
He was visible for no more than seven seconds. The Americans fired quickly, and he felt the hot whisper of bullets pushing the air to the left and right as they plunged past. The earth erupted around him and filled the air with grit that assailed his nose and throat.
The bullet that would kill him did not find him.
He slid to earth behind a hummock, gulped for air, then heard a series of blasts from the draw below.
He slid to the crest of the hummock and watched from a hundred yards out as an American raced down the hill with a big automatic rifle — they had so many different kinds of weapons! — sweeping quickly, sending cascades of bullets into counterlaid spider holes whose existence only the captain himself knew, as he had designed them.
It was over in seconds.
The big hairy beast yelled and gestured and two men came down the hill and another few around it, as they joined in the middle of the draw, and the American ordered them into a hasty line and led them forward.
The captain saw it then: flamethrower.
The last two Americans in line had the flamethrower. One of them wore it on a harness, a cluster of tanks centered on his back, so heavy with jellied fuel that he bent under it and held a tubular nozzle with a pistol grip, which concealed a pyrotechnic igniter, literally a match that when struck would unleash the spurting fuel. They would come up the draw, pivot left, and under covering fire burn out the gun pits. Then the Americans would blow the steel door into the bunker and burn that out too.
The captain reached for grenades. They were absurd things, called Type 97s, unreliable and untrustworthy. Cylindrical and grooved for fragmentation, they were designed with four-and-a-half-second fuses, which meant they either had one-second fuses or six-second fuses, if they detonated at all. You primed them — this was beyond comedy! — by first pulling a pin, then smashing their fuse housing hard against your helmet and driving a striker through a primer to light a powder train.
He almost laughed.
We are the Yamato race and we cannot build a hand grenade to save our lives. The men joked, We can survive the Americans, but...our own grenades?
But the Buddha smiled. He pulled the pin on the first cylinder, smashed its fuse housing against a stone, the striker flew and lit the fuse, and it sizzled to life. He held it one second (so dangerous!) then threw it over the crest. He repeated the process, and heard the first detonate. Possibly a cry was lost in the explosion. The second grenade he didn't hold, on the sound principle that no two in a row would work properly, but just hurled it, and it was the right decision, for just an instant later it went.
The captain pulled himself over the crest of the draw.
All the Americans were down. One of the boys with the automatic rifle was shrieking hysterically, his left arm bloody. Two were still. The flamethrower operator was trying to regain his feet.
The captain shot him first. He put a stream of five 8 mm Nambu slugs into him, and another burst into the assistant, even though that man was down. He shifted to the automatic rifleman, who labored with the bloody arm to raise his weapon, while behind them his loader tried to grope for a dropped carbine. The captain finished them in one long burst. Then he rotated to the downed leader and put a burst into him. He raced down the draw, went to the flamethrower operator, who unbelievably, still breathed. He fired into his head and tried not to notice and, when that proved impossible, not to feel shame at the impact of the bullets on the young face. Then he pulled his bayonet and sawed the hose through and tossed the pistol-like igniter housing away.
No blowtorches for his men today.
He spun and began to race back to the blockhouse.
Earl somehow regained consciousness. He was not dead. He tried to reassemble what had happened, and finally identified it as either an errant mortar shell or grenades. He shook his head, trying to drive the jangles of pain out, but they remained. His hip throbbed. He looked down and saw blood. His canteen was punctured twice, there was a groove cut in the brass keeper of his web belt where a bullet had spanged off, and a bullet had grooved his side, a slow leakage of blood accumulating on his heavy USMC twill shirt. He looked around.
Gone, all gone.
Fuck, he thought.
Finally met a Jap smart as me. Smarter even, goddamn his little monkey soul to hell.
The draw was quiet, though the noise of the firing was close at hand. The Japanese still held the blockhouse; his flanking thrust had been defeated. He'd gotten four men of Able Company wiped out and himself damn near killed, and only because, now that he thought of it, he must have heard the chink! of a Jap arming his grenade that got him to the ground before the first blast, and he now realized there were two blasts.
He looked about; his Thompson was a few feet away. He picked it up, blew sand out of the trigger assembly, and rotated down the safety. No need to check the chamber for he carried it in combat with a round sitting there, the bolt held back. He started up the draw.
He climbed the crest, pivoted, and could see nothing. Ahead lay a crest line, where a hummock of black sand was anchored by a netting of scraggly vegetation.
He lurched ahead, slipped once, then got around the hummock to find himself a hundred yards or so from the blockhouse. Three gun pits, sandbagged revetments reinforced with palm, held gun crews with riflemen, all working frantically to keep their fire up. The guns hammered away like industrial implements.
Earl didn't pause a second. It wasn't in his nature. He had the advantage of surprise, and he was on the first pit before the men realized. He fired a long burst, the gun steamy and jumpy in his hands, and just cut them down.
A man in the second pit, thirty yards farther out, rose to his racket, fired at Earl, and the bullet banged off his helmet, the helmet itself flipping away. Earl fired from the hip, catching him, then raced to the pit, firing, and as he reached it ran dry of ammo and so leaped in, using his gun butt. He drove the heavy thing forward, smashing a Jap in the face, spun sideways, and smashed another. He returned to the first with several savage butt strokes, his heart empty of mercy.
Around him, the world lit up. Nambu fire from the third pit. Earl went down, reached for his own grenade, pulled the pin, and threw it. As he waited for the detonation, he hastened through a magazine change. When the grenade fired off, he rose to see three men with a light Nambu racing his way and he took them down with a raking burst. He rose, ran through fire to the third pit — why he wasn't killed was a mystery he'd ponder for the rest of his life — and finished the clip on the wounded men who struggled within it. When the gun ran dry, he killed two wounded men with his gun butt, not a thing you'd tell a child about, but a necessary part of the job.
He sat back, exhausted, sucked in air that was heavy with the chemical stench of this goddamned place. He saw the blockhouse lay a few yards away and knew he'd have to blow it. Yeah, with what? No grenades left, no satchel charge, no bangalore torpedo, no flamethrower. Then he flipped a Jap over — the body was so light! — and found a pouch of grenades. He knew the Jap grenades were no good, but maybe a bagful would do the trick. He reached for his Thompson and saw why it had quit. A wedge of sand had jimmied the bolt halfway back. You'd have to scrape for a month to get it cleared.
He took a breath and ran to the blockhouse, squirmed along the back of it, his shirt scraping the concrete. He could hear its guns working the slope. He found a chamber, and peeking in, he saw a black steel door.
Earl pressed himself against the wall, took out one of the Jap grenades. With his teeth, he got the pin out. Then he slammed the end of the thing against the wall, felt it fizzle, and watched the dry thin smoke of burning powder pour out of it.
Oh, shit, these things scared him.
He dumped it in the bag, tossed the bag flush against the steel door, and headed back across the sand to the gun pit.
He needed a weapon.
The captain made it back inside. In the dankness, in the darkness, there was a moment's respite from the storm of the battle. The noise went way down, the glare ceased, the stench of sulfur was supplanted by other stenches.
Someone clapped him on the shoulder, someone hugged him, someone cried with joy.
"I stopped their flame team. Now we've got them. They won't be getting up here this morning. Samurai!"
He handed the Type 100 to his sergeant and went back to his little corner. He picked up his sword, a prosaic blade probably ground out by a machine in the Naval Sword Company, polished on a machine, assembled by a worker. Yet it was strangely sharp and twice men had tried to buy it from him. There was something about it that he couldn't quite define.
Now he fastened it to his belt by its clip, drew the blade out, and set it before him.
He felt he had done his duty. No one would perish in flames. They would achieve death with dignity.
He picked up a calligraphy brush and dipped it in ink. He thought of Lord Asano in 1702, seconds from his own death by his own hand, bowing to pressures so great as to be incomprehensible.
Asano had written
I wish I had seen
Asano knew what was important: the end of spring, his duty; the falling of the cherry blossoms, the emptiness of ceremony. Then Asano had plunged his blade into his stomach and drawn it cleanly across the midline of his body, cutting entrails and organs, spraying blood everywhere until the mercy of the sword had sundered his neck, ending all.
Now it was clear before Yano. He had to record what happened here, what this place was, how hard these men had fought, how hard they had died. Inspiration suddenly arrived, along with enlightenment, and in a few deft strokes, he sent kanji characters spilling vertically across the rice paper. They seemed to tumble from his brush, feathery, almost delicate, a testament to the artist's genius amid the slaughter. It was so human.
It was his death poem.
He removed his sword and laid it before him on the small writing table. With the nub of his brush, he pushed out the bamboo peg that secured the grip to the tang. Smoothly the grip slid upward, but instead of taking it off, he wrapped his death poem around the tang and remounted the grip. Then he thrust the peg back through the hole. But he thought, Too loose. With the still-wet calligraphy brush, he quickly applied a dollop of ink to the peg. It would slide into the hole, thicken like lacquer, then eventually harden into a cement bond that would keep the sword tightly assembled forever.
For some reason this small task — in the face of death — gave him immense satisfaction. It meant that his last conscious act had been the act of poetry.
Then the world exploded.
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Hunter
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