Kubo San

Kubo San and his naginata All great legends have a beginning. All great stories have a prelude. And all great heroes have a childhood - a time when they were only children as yet unknown to the world. A time where the fates merely thundered in the distance heralding the times to come.

This story is such a prelude. It begins with the birth of a boy child into a poor peasant family near Hakone. The child’s full name was Hishikiwa Bunjiro however his family were unimportant rice peasants and his name is of little import. As a child he was known simply as Bunjiro.

His parents lived hard, short lives. They labored in rice fields by day, eating plain meals of rice with herbs, and sleeping upon straw mats in their small thatch hut. Despite their poverty and low station Bunjiro’s father Hanshiro was a proud man, and took pleasure in his grueling work. His mother Etsumi was protective and nurturing, and was the only person who ever called Bunjiro by his full name. The early years of Bunjiro’s childhood were mostly typical, playing with other peasant children or catching frogs and insects in the rice paddies.

When Bunjiro was four years old however his world was turned inside out. Bunjiro was helping his father thresh the last of a long summer day’s harvest. Most of the peasants had returned to their huts, but there were still several rice bundles which would take until after dark to thresh. It was on this night that a band of rōnin decided to raid the grain storehouse. They waited until the workers had left and under the cover of darkness made their move. The two guards posted outside the storehouse groaned and dropped quietly dead as several arrows thudded into them from the darkness. The rōnin dragged the bodies inside and entered the storage area quietly. As they set about stuffing sacks of grain into their backpacks the main door swung open and a man with a small boy entered, carrying a tray of rice grain. He stopped as he saw guards’ bodies and looked up into the murderous gazes of the rōnin. They all drew steel and lunged forth. Reactively Hanshiro threw his tray of rice into the face of the first attacker, who raised an arm to cover his eyes as rice grains sprayed across the room. With the first bandit momentarily distracted he snatched up a weeding hoe leaning against the wall and jabbed it handle first into the assailants face. The rough wooden stump of the farming implement embedded itself in the bandit’s eye and drove deep into the eye socket. To Hanshiro’s horror and surprise the rōnin let out a cry of shock and pain, and slumped onto the end of the wooden pole he was holding. Hanshiro yanked it free with a sucking pop and the rōnin fell back, his one eye wide and his jaw gaping. As Hanshiro stepped back he almost tripped on something small and soft - his son. “Run, Bunjiro!” he shouted, and grimly readied his hoe as the next rōnin stepped into range.

But Bunjiro did not run. He had just witnessed his father kill a rōnin dead with a simple hoe, and he reeled from the shock and awe of it. Never before had little Bunjiro seen a man die, and the look of complete surprise on the rōnin’s face would be etched forever into his memory. At the same time Bunjiro was completely enthralled by the spectacle. In that moment Bunjiro’s father was no longer a simple rice farmer, he had transcended into something greater. Something of grace and beauty beyond descriptions labeled by rank or station. Bunjiro’s impression of his father changed forever in that instant.

Hanshiro had backed out of the small door and by doing so was forcing the rōnin to attack him one at a time. The second bandit leaped through the doorway and parried Hanshiro’s thrust with his blade, bringing it down in a viscous arc as he closed. Hanshiro used the momentum of the parry to swing the metal end of the hoe which embedded into the back of the rōnin’s skull with a loud crack. The rōnin staggered and blinked several times. He reached to touch the back of his head and felt it wet. Then his world went black and he knew no more, his killing sword falling from his hand. “BUNJIRO! I SAID RUN!”

Across the rice paddies echoed the sounds of fighting. The dogs at the guards quarters were baying and a guard opened a door to see what the matter was. Peasants looked out from their huts towards the storehouse and saw eerie shadows dancing by the candle light. Once appeared to be wielding a long polearm, and the two that had emerged were both holding long killing swords, their movements deliberate and calculated. There stood a third shadow nearby, that of a child, apparently unnoticed and gazing in awe at the dancers. Etsumi had been wondering where her husband and son were, and lifted the flap on her hut when she heard the noises. For a moment she pondered at the distant scene, and then gasped as the pieces fell into place. She cried out and started running towards the grain storehouse.

Hanshiro’s side stung but he ignored it. The second rōnin had probably scored a flesh wound before he went down, but now he was facing two ex-samurai and he had to think what to do. He had been a farmer all his life and had never had any formal weapon training. Hanshiro had only ever used a hoe to turn earth and he may have even become good at it over the last ten years, but he really had no idea how he’d killed two armed rōnin with his hoe. And now the last two were circling him. His strength was waning and he knew he would die in this fight, but these two rōnin hadn’t just slashed him down like the peasant he knew he was. They were were carefully circling him like cats, and they fought now as they would fight another samurai. This knowledge alone made him contented and proud. He would die a good death at the hands of skilled men, a rare and special privilege among peasants. The rōnin on his right feinted to close with him but stayed at range, and anticipating movement to his left he spun, swinging the handle of the hoe in a low clockwise arc that swept the legs from the rōnin attacking him. Fire erupted across his back but he thought little of it, switching his attention to the last rōnin before him.

Daisuke had never fought peasantry, for peasants never fought. They simply died and were grateful that it was by the hand of a samurai. Of course he was no samurai now. Daisuke was rōnin, fated to walk the roads masterless and in shame. This irked him constantly, but it was irrelevant. Two things about his current situation gnawed at his temper now. The lesser of the two being that an armed peasant was an affront to the entire class system. It insulted what it meant to be samurai, and such offenders deserved nothing less than to be butchered and left to stink where he fell. The second thing he hated about his peasant was that he was wielding a farm implement, and he had to admit to himself, wielding it well. There was no technique in his style, but he had a feel for its balance, reacted swiftly and fought strategically. He had watched a peasant defeat two of his comrades and fell a third using a damned hoe. Such shame was unfathomable, and his anger flared. And then Daisuke realised something else. He was being forced to fight this low life as an equal! Could he fall any further into shame? This pathetic farmer was his opponent, and was trying to kill him. Enough was enough. The final threads of Daisuke’s restraint snapped as the handle of the hoe swung at him and glanced off the crown of his head, stinging and shaking his vision. He roared in anger. “I am Kazuko Daisuke, and you are a peasant! You presume to fight me as an equal? YOU ARE PEASANTRY! DIE LIKE PEASANTRY!”.

Hanshiro’s hoe smashed into the rōnin’s face as he lunged at him, fracturing the jaw and knocking free several top teeth, but it was too late. The rōnin had thrown his full weight into a killing stroke which stove the hoe in two and buried into Hanshiro’s midsection. Hanshiro staggered and hunched over, resting his brow on the rōnin’s shoulder, and toppled backwards onto the grass as the rōnin pulled his blade free. Hanshiro’s gaze locked with the darkly clad rōnin that had killed him. The man was nursing his jaw, blood dribbling from his ruined mouth and nose. Despite the pain flaring openly across his body Hanshiro felt glad. Somewhere he heard dogs barking and men shouting, and the rōnin before him looked around nervously. The other one was back on his feet now although limping, which Hanshiro also was proud about. The two ex-samurai scowled at him in disbelief for a moment, and then disappeared from view.

Bunjiro had watched the entire fight as if in a trance. The spell was broken when he heard footprints behind him, and his mother swept him up. Etsumi and little Bunjiro watched Hanshiro’s last moments pass. Etsumi had wept and stroked his hair however Bunjiro said nothing. He had glimpsed the greatness that his father had become in the last moments of his life, and felt nothing but glowing pride. Bunjiro decided at that moment that he would one day become like his father had been in his last minutes of glory. His father died quietly with his family, and men came to take his body away. Guards rushed past with dogs and weapons drawn, and onlookers came to gawk at all the bodies. Etsumi rose and returned to her hut. As Bunjiro made to leave something in the grass caught his eye. He stooped and picked it up. It was a tooth, still moist and glistening with blood and saliva.

The local guardsmen launched a manhunt. One rōnin was caught limping northwards through the swamps and was executed publicly the next day. The other was never seen again. The clan that owned the rice paddies were grateful of Hanshiro’s prevention of the theft, and a formal funeral was organised. Without Hanshiros income Etsumi fell on hard times. She was unable to make enough to provide for herself and Bunjiro, and no men were interested in marrying a solo mother. Bunjiro was still too young to be productive enough to feed himself, so when a timber merchant named Tenoki offered to buy him from her she reluctantly agreed. Bunjiro was eight summers old.

Away from his mother and the rice paddies Bunjiro discovered a new found freedom. He had been put to work in a logging camp de-branching the trees once they were felled. The greenery of the forest fired his spirit and he felt freer than he had in his whole life. He enjoyed his work and despite his age became proficient at lopping branches and debarking the trunks. He threw himself into his work, working longer and harder than many of the men. He was soon known by the men as Bakkubo-n (which means backbone), which was soon shortened to Kubo. Bunjiro, or Kubo as he preferred to be known, was young and had no social standing in the camp, but he quickly found he preferred to remain aloof from the workers. He spent more and more time in the forest, and found a small cave where he preferred to sleep. Kubo began work as the first tree fell, worked without pause until the sun set, then collected his rations and his meagre pay and returned to the forest for the night.

Over the years Kubo became increasingly distant from the camp, and the workers began to view him suspiciously. As an outsider with no rank or friends he was an easy target for bullies, and the first attack happened when Kubo was fifteen. As he returned to the forest with his rations two older boys waited for him at the edge of the forest. They were free men who had been caught sleeping on duty. If they had have been slaves they would have both received floggings, but instead the boss could only shame them and cut their pay. He had compared them to Kubo which insulted their pride, and they sought to punish Kubo for making them look bad. As a slave Kubo had no legal rights, and so long as nobody witnessed the attack they could get away with it. If Kubo fought back they would have him tried for assault. As Kubo approached they pounced him, dragging him to the floor and issuing a beating that left Kubo nearly senseless. They took his pay and his rations, and left him lying on the forest floor. To Kubo the attack had been completely unprovoked, and he dragged himself back to his cave. Bruised, beaten and hungry, Kubo cried bitterly until he fell into a deep sleep.

That night he dreamed of his father slaying rōnin with a hoe, dancing and spinning majestically. The next morning Kubo awoke with a new resolution. He went to his boss’s hut and rapped loudly on the door. After several minutes knocking Tenoki answered the door irritably. Kubo bowed respectfully and apologised for the intrusion. Tenoki recognised Kubo and softened a little, inviting him in. “I want to purchase my freedom, and to learn the Naginata.” Tenoki laughed aloud. “Kubo, that’s ridiculous. Of course you know this is not possible. Slaves may not wield weapons. You are a peasant and a slave, and I own you. Who put these ideas in your head?” Kubo answered seriously. “Free men may learn weapons. You will sell me my freedom.” Tenoki was still smiling. “And with what will you purchase your freedom?” Kubo produced a small bag of copper coins and emptied it on the table. “Here is everything I have saved.” Tenoki’s smile faded as he realised Kubo was serious. “Kubo you are one of my best workers, and worth much more than this meagre amount. Why would I ever set you free anyway?” Kubo’s expression hardened as he spoke. “Because if you don’t sell me my freedom I will not work for another day in this camp. I will leave this hut and run away. Maybe I will be caught and killed, maybe not. Either way I will not be working here, which is a greater loss for you than if I buy my freedom.” Tenoki scratched his thin beard thoughtfully. “And what if you cannot afford the price I offer you?” “You would loan the remainder to me, and I would pay it back. I continue to work for you as a free man until the debt is paid. And I will learn the Naginata.” “Kubo, you are a dreamer and a fool, but I must admit a determined one. I will sell you your freedom and loan you the money. I will find someone to teach you the Naginata and add the cost of tuition to your loan. You will work in the camp until the debt is paid in full - with interest, of course.” And so, Kubo and Tenoki made a deal. Tenoki’s price was far higher than a slave of Kubo’s age was worth, but Kubo accepted without complaint. He had been granted his freedom and his dream. Tenoki arranged for loan and identity papers to be drawn up, and stamped his personal seal on the documents. The name on the document read “Kubo San”.

That night the boys were again waiting for Kubo San at the edge of the forest. Kubo San saw them waiting in the shadows and prepared himself. Thoughts of his father streaked across his mind as the boys emerged and circled him. To Kubo San they looked just like rōnin. The boy in front of him stepped in and threw a swinging right hook which breezed past his nose. Raising his fist to his cheek Kubo San leaned forward and hammered his fist into the boy’s face, splitting the boy’s lip. Kubo San felt a hand grip his arm and he spun, lashing out blindly. A blow pounded into his ear and for a moment he felt as though the world had turned upside down. He saw the other boy’s snarling face before him and headbutted, pulping the nose against his forehead. From nowhere a fist slammed into his gut and Kubo San dropped to his knees and doubled over. Blows rained down across his body. Kubo San pictured Hanshiro once more, and he remembered the tooth he had found. Looking down he noticed a small rock in the grass and took it in one hand. The pain in Kubo San’s gut subsided and he stood shakily, locking gazes with the boy with the bleeding lip. The boy smirked at him with bloodied teeth, and stepped towards him. Kubo San leaped at him grabbing a fistful of the boy’s long black hair in his left hand, and driving the rock into the boy’s face. The boy let out a shriek of horror and clasped his mouth with both hands, his eyes wild and fearful. Kubo San stepped back, rock still in hand, and turned to the other boy. Both boys fled. Kubo San watched them disappear back into the camp. As Kubo San replaced the rock he noticed something small and white in the grass. He picked it up and smiled to himself. Now he had two.

The two boys had run directly to the authorities and reported the attack. When Kubo San appeared for work the next morning he was greeted by Tenoke, a police official, and the two boys. “Thath the one!” said the boy with the split lip and missing teeth. “That thlave attackthed uth and broke my theeth! We nether did nuthing to him. He’th jutht crazy.” “Is that true?” asked Tenoke. Kubo San rubbed his swollen cheek. “Well, sure. I smashed out his teeth all right. Got one right here. Wouldn’t call it unprovoked though. Have you asked what they were doing in the forest?” The police official interrupted. “Actually these two men have lodged a complaint against your slave. Unless you can provide witnesses of decent moral standing that contradict the account of these men the charges will stand and you will be required to turn your slave over to the authorities. He is now property of the state.” Kubo San looked confused, and the two boys looked at each other smugly. Tenoke chuckled. “If you’re after someone of ‘decent moral standing’ perhaps you ought to ask Kubo San himself. I saw what these two lugs did to him the other day and sold him his freedom yesterday. I have the documents right here.” Tenoke drew a scroll from his kimono and handed it to the official, then turned to the two boys. “You two sleep on the job and then attack my best workers. Get out of my camp.” The police official was taken aback. He opened the scroll and glanced at Kubo San, then rolled it up and handed it back. “Hm. It appears I have been misinformed. These men told me a slave had brutally attacked them, though it appears not to have been the case. My apologies to you both.” With that the official strode away. The two boys backed away and were never seen on the campsite again. Kubo San fashioned a necklace that he wore at all times. It was a simple thread with two white teeth threaded onto it. It was a warning.

Tenoki had been true to his word. A samurai wife named Mariko was found who agreed to teach Kubo San the techniques of the Naginata. As the months progressed so did Kubo San’s skill with the Naginata. Mariko was very strict, and Kubo San would rarely return from a lesson with less than a few bruises.

Apart from his work, Kubo San found that only his basic needs bound him to human civilisation. He heard about a hermit named Kazuke who lived in the swamp and sought him out. Kazuke was a man of nature, and accepted Kubo San as a student. Over the next few years he taught Kubo San to exist independantly from humanity. Kubo San worked during the day, and split the rest of his time between studying the Naginata, and learned to hunt, fish and gather during his free time. Kazuke taught him the lay of the land, to find suitable camp sites, to follow tracks, and to befriend animals.

By the time he was eighteen Kubo San had paid off his debt, but continued to work in the lumber camp because he found he enjoyed it. He had completed his Naginata training with Mariko, and had learned to fully coexist with nature under Kazuke’s tutelage. He still returned occasionally to Kazuke and Mariko for social visits, however these were rare as neither were particularly sociable. Kubo San had also been promoted and was now allowed to select and cut down trees himself without oversight. This meant two things. He was paid slightly more and he could work on his own without the interference of others.

It was sometime during Kubo San’s nineteenth year that the accident happened. He was felling a tree in a clearing near the camp. As he swung the final blow two men wandered into the clearing. The trunk let forth a thunderous crack and began to topple. The two men heard the crack and turned to see what had caused it, just in time to see a great bushy object blot out the sun. One man dived for cover while the other stood rooted to the spot. He was crushed instantly to death beneath the trunk as it thundered into the earth. The man’s death was reported to Tenoki and a clan representative was summoned. The usual legal punishment for negligence resulting in death was the loss of the right hand. Fortunately for Kubo San he was liked by Tenoki, and the ‘proper’ authorities were never informed. Kubo San was however banished from the camp with a stain on his name. After ten years of living in the logging camp he had grown to call home, Kubo San returned once again to Hakone to see what the fates had in store for him next.

Little did he know.

Written by Marco [1]