Kaiyo sat on the large wicker food hamper, her knees drawn up to her chest, cradling them for warmth against the sharp chill of the night wind. Beside her, leaning against the hamper, was her katana (what we call a sword). Behind her was a large handcart with two great wooden wheels, the pull-shafts resting on stacked branches to keep it evenly balanced. On the bed of the cart was what appeared to be a corpse. It was wrapped like a mummy in cotton gauzing from head to toe. Silk banners with embroidered writing draped the body. These were the clan symbols of Kaiyo’s master: Lord Hashimi Hokura.
Before his death, Lord Hokura had ordered his servant, Kaiyo, to take his body to the great kusu-no-ki tree (which we call a camphor tree) at the crossroads where the pilgrim’s path met the road to the city of Edo. And that is why, under the spreading branches of the great kusu tree, Kaiyo, a girl still in her teens, spent three nights in a row battling a demon.
How Kaiyo came into the service of Lord Hokura was a sad but common story for the times. Her parents were tenant farmers on a blighted piece of land that brought forth nothing but bitterness. They fell deeply into debt, and couldn’t pay the rent. Despairing, desperate, they gave up their heart’s delight, their clever little daughter Kaiyo, to the lordship’s household.
She was just six years of age when she came to work at the great house. It was magnificent back then, bustling with activity. Servants ran about cleaning, cooking, feeding, dodging in and around the samurai soldiers engrossed in constant training. In the courtyard were ponds filled with beautiful koi fish—flashes of gold, red, white, and speckled black—darting under small foot-bridges that arced like lacquered rainbows. There were magnificent gardens carefully cultivated and arranged; nature’s chaos bent to man’s will to create harmony. And there were the flowering trees that exploded in springtime with white, pink, purple, and red flowers—blossoms so stunning that the Shogun himself said on a visit: “Heaven would not look more beautiful.” Yes, it was more beauty than could possibly be contained between four high, well-guarded walls.
But not for Kaiyo. For her it was a miserable routine. She worked in the kitchens. Her life consisted of rising before the sun, hauling bucket after bucker of water from the well outside the walls, and taking them to a small cistern beside the stoves. Then she’d fill the huge cooking pots from the cistern, and load up the wood for the massive stoves. Then she’d chop the vegetables and meat. And chop, and carry water, and carry wood, and chop, and sweep up the kitchens until it was time to go to sleep on her mat on the bare floor in the cramped building filled with exhausted snoring servants who farted in their sleep. Then she’d wake before the sun, and start it all over again.
Soon the sight of the beautiful gardens, flowering trees, and shimmering fish were just a bitter reminder of her relentless, exhausting toil.
And if they didn’t do the trick, there was always the lord and his family to remind her of her lowly place in the great wheel of the world. When they passed, she was taught to bow, her nose scraping the ground. When they needed something, she was taught to drop everything and fetch it. Their wish was her command. And in return, she was treated as an inconvenience, an ugly necessity to be tolerated and ignored until needed again. And if she made a mistake, she’d be beaten or sent off without food. In short: life sucked.
Things changed however, when she got old enough and was put in charge of collecting the offal (the parts of cattle, pigs, rabbits, and fish that the cook could not use) that was meant for the hounds. She would mix it with the leftover rice and scrapings from the dinner plates into a big sticky mess, then take it to the kennel.
In the kennel were the lord’s four hunting dogs. They were massive beasts imported from the northern district of Akita, with thick coats, black faces, and curling tails. They were fearsome, and would growl at anyone’s approach. At first Kaiyo was frightened of them, but slowly over time, she began to feel a kinship. She was locked in a cage as well, and only wished she shared their courage to growl at her masters.
One day when no one was around, she took a special treat she’d made—slices of pig heart steeped in sweet sauce—and brought it to the lead dog’s cage. The lead dog’s name was Amato. He was bigger and tougher than the others, and looked you straight in the eye. His merest snarl could make a grown man’s knees shudder. She pushed her hand through the bars, holding the treat, but Amato snapped at her, so she pulled her hand out lightning fast.
Amato glared at her. She glared back. Then she put her hand in again. Once more, Amato snapped. Again she pulled it back quick-as-a-wink. This went on four more times, so Kaiyo left without giving the dog the delicious pig heart smothered in sweet-sauce.
The next day she came back and tried it again. Again, Amato snapped and growled. Again, the experiment failed and she left without feeding the dog the treat from her hand.
But the following day something changed. She tried it again, and again Amato snapped. But the sixth time she pulled her hand away, Amato looked her straight in the eye, cocked his head to the side, and whimpered. So she slowly put her hand back in with the sweet pig heart slice, edging forward, cautious but steadfast. This time he approached slowly, sniffing, then licked it. He turned his massive wedge of a head sideways and began to eat from her outstretched fingers. When he was finished, she scooped more of the treat from her sack. Amatao eagerly lapped it up, licking her fingers.
Feeling emboldened, she reached out and touched him. Under the course outer hair on his neck, was a soft, thick coat that felt like goose down to her calloused hand. Amato turned his head to offer the back of his ear for a scratch. She scratched. He groaned in delight.
Suddenly, a voice interrupted, harsh and deep. “What are you doing?!” it said. Kaiyo turned to see Wanizame standing behind her, an angry scowl on his scarred face.
Wanizame (which means “shark”) was the former bodyguard of Lord Hokura and in charge of training the samurai. He was as thick as a tree trunk, with knotted muscles, and a rooted bearing. A scar ran down his face from the top of his brow to the edge of his chin. The story was that he got it saving the life of the lord in battle.
Kaiyo froze. These may be the lord’s kennels, but everyone knew they were Wanizame’s dogs.
“I asked you a question, girl,” said the grizzled soldier.
Kaiyo’s mind raced. She quickly pulled her hand from the cage, and began formulating an excuse. “I… I…” but nothing more came out.
“You trying to soften them up? Turn them into pets?!” Wanizame demanded.
“Oh no, sir,” replied Kaiyo quickly. Unfortunately, that’s when Amato started whining, pushing his big wet nose through the bars, and demanding Kaiyo scratch him again.
“Hm,” said the warrior. He came closer, towering like an oak over the crouching Kaiyo. She stood up, trying to be brave. “What is your name?” asked Wanizame.
“You make the food for them?” he said, nodding to the dogs.
“Hm,” he said again, digesting the information. “He has smelled your scent on his dinner before. That’s why you still have a hand. You’re very lucky.”
She looked at Amato. The massive dog was shoving the side of his head against the bamboo bars, begging for her to continue scratching. He yowled playfully, like a giant demented puppy. She reached in and rubbed his head. He moaned low and contentedly. Kaiyo smiled. “Yes, Lord. Very lucky.”
“Enough!” barked the master. Kaiyo quickly retracted her hand, as Amato quickly hunched down. Wanizame’s eyes burned under his heavy brow. “These are not playthings!” said the samurai. “They are bred for a purpose: to hunt; to kill.”
“Yes, Lord,” said Kaiyo, her head bent, eyes staring straight at the ground. She knew she was in trouble—terrible, deep trouble.
“But,” began the fearful warrior, “that doesn’t mean they are not capable of more.” He turned away, his hand stroking his chin in thought. His voice softened slightly. “From this day forward,” he said, “you will be in charge of the hounds. You will feed them, run them, and train them under my command. Is that understood?”
“I what, Lord?”
“Is that understood?!” barked Wanizame.
“Good,” he said, then started to walk off.
“Lord?” she asked.
He stopped, and turned. “What?”
“Why me?” she asked.
The man called shark took a moment, then: “Amato should have bitten your hand off. But he didn’t,” said Wanizame. “He chose you. Not I.”
And that’s how Kaiyo came to be in charge of the hounds.
It’s not that her days differed too much in length or routine now that she was mistress of the hounds. She still slept amongst snoring and farting servants, still rose before the sun, still hauled water, loaded stoves, and chopped meats and vegetables for hours. But in between the collecting of the scraps, and sweeping of the kitchen, she got to run with the hounds.
…And it was heaven.
She learned how to train them with a whistle, learned how to control them, dominate them, and discipline them. But she also learned how to let them go, let the wolf in them run free, going on pure instinct.
Along with Amato, was Kana (the pretty girl), Mikio (clever but lazy), and Han (the clown). They worked hard practicing quartering their quarry. But they also romped and played and wrestled. Kaiyo loved them more than anything she had known in her whole life. And in return, they loved her.
“They are devoted to you,” said Wanizame. “They would die for you.” Then he looked at Kaiyo sternly, “That is a great responsibility. Remember: the loyalty and sacrifice of others is not a measure of your worth. It is a measure of their honor.” He looked away, darkness crossing his grizzled brow. “If you abuse that honor, take advantage of it selfishly, that does not make them foolish. It makes you unworthy.”
Kaiyo suspected that while he may have been speaking about her, he was actually talking about Lord Hokura.
Lord Hokura was an ambitious man, and spent money extravagantly. Not just on the lavish household, but on war after war with the neighboring lords. He expanded his lands by spilling coin and blood. Many were the soldiers who paid with their lives for the lord’s obsession with power.
His ambitions grew so great, that they eventually warranted a cautioning visit from the Shogun (whom we would call “Emperor”). The days before the supreme ruler’s arrival were a frenzy of panic and preparation. Nobody slept a wink. But it was all worth it, for when the Shogun arrived with his retinue, Lord Hokura’s household shone like a glittering jewel laid on a silken pillow. Lord Hokura spared no expense in entertaining his noble guest—a man whose throat he’d have happily slit in a heartbeat if it meant gaining the throne. There were days and nights of feasting and drinking, of song and dance.
But the highlight was the hunt. Twelve wild boar had been captured then released for the emperor. One of them had even been lamed, ensuring that the Shogun—an uncoordinated buffoon who fancied himself a sportsman—would get a kill.
Kaiyo’s hounds were dazzling. They worked together as a team, corralling, quartering, running down the hogs, giving the royalty on horseback enough time to aim their arrows and finish the boar. The Shogun was incredibly impressed with the dogs. “Then they are my gift to you,” said Lord Hokura. And with that, Amato, Kana, Mikio, and Han were crated up the following day, and taken away by the Shogun.
Kaiyo was destroyed. It didn’t feel like her heart was broken, it felt like it was ripped out of her along with her stomach and lungs. She felt an emptiness and pain she didn’t know possible. Wanizame found her in the kennel, crying uncontrollably, her body heaving, wracked with sobs. “Enough!” he barked.
She stopped, and looked at him. In her eyes, behind the tears, burned a rage. Wanizame saw it and softened slightly. “Be here at nightfall tomorrow,” he said, then turned and walked away without explanation.
And that’s how Kaiyo became a samurai.