“Asai, stop,” his mother called after him.
The young Sparrow whirled. “How can you defend him, mother”
“You just don’t understand him,” Suzume Hiroe said quietly. “He has his reasons. And he is my husband, and your father. We must show him respect.”
“Respect” Asai asked incredulously. “When has he shown *you* the least bit of respect”
Hiroe lowered her eyes ever so slightly, avoiding her son’s gaze. “You don’t know him, not really,” she replied quietly. “He was a good man, once. He still is, without the sake. You never took the time to see that.”
“Because he never gave me the chance!” Asai exploded. “The man’s a drunkard, and has been as long as I can remember. And now, when it’s finally come back at him, you want me to forgive him” He strode up to his mother, roughly pushing her hair aside to reveal the large purple and brown spot marring her porcelain face. She flinched at his touch. “After he did this to you, you want me to forgive him If he weren’t already dying, I’d kill him myself.”
The sound of Hiroe’s breath drawing into a tiny gasp was overpowered by the echoes of her slap. “He is your father, Asai. You are a samurai. You have a duty to honor him, whatever your personal feelings.” With that, Suzume Hiroe turned and stalked inside to tend to her dying husband, leaving her son to do what he would.
The afternoon sun had long since crossed below the low horizon when Asai finally came to see his father. The old man was lying in the center of a small room, covered in blankets and surrounded by candles and incense. He looked a good ten years older than he actually was – his jagged wound from the bar fight had become infected, and the infection had gotten into his blood.
Once, the name of Suzume Tsubasa had been synonymous with strength to his son. Now, he looked so frail that Asai was afraid to touch him. His skin had a sickening greenish tinge, and his eyes, reddened and bloodshot from years of drink, gave him an almost unearthly appearance, as if one already dead.
“So…” Tsubasa said weakly, not opening his eyes. “You decided to come after all. That’s good. Your mother…”
“She talked to me,” Asai said hesitantly. “Father…”
“Let me speak.” Tsubasa’s voice was louder, stronger, as if the interaction was giving him renewed energy. “You deserve to know why…” a burst of coughing interrupted his speech.
“Father,” Asai began as the coughing subsided.
“Quiet,” the old man said testily. “I said, you deserve to know why things are the way they are between us. It began, as so many things do, with a girl.”
Irae was everything I was not. Where I was loud, she was quiet. Where I was clumsy, she was agile. She was not beautiful, not in the traditional sense, but to watch her move was a joyous thing. It was as if she had the soul of a falcon – all motion, and freedom, and laughter. She hailed to no master but herself, and from the first moment I saw her, I was in love.
Now, mind you, this was not the childish boy love that all young men go through. This was true love – the love that envelops you, that raises you up and makes all your cares disappear. When she was unhappy, the world was a dark and gloomy place. When she smiled, it was like dawn breaking on a winter field. I would have gladly sacrificed my life for that smile, without a second thought.
It was still a year until my gempukku when I met her, and that year was the happiest of my life. I was the son of the governor of our small city, and Irae, the daughter of a local ronin family. We were not in the same social circles, but we didn’t care, and we found excuses to be together nonetheless.
That year went by so quickly. In but a blink of an eye, it was another spring, and my gempukku was on the horizon, and with it an event that I had pushed to the back of my mind – my marriage.
You see, your mother and I had been promised to bind our two families together. I was too young, and so they timed the marriage immediately after my gempukku. We had barely met, but we were both bushi, and duty to our families and our clans forced us together. Irae knew this, of course, but in our blindness to everything but each other, we didn’t care. And so the day of my gempukku, and my marriage, arrived, creeping into my life like a thief.
I can’t remember a thing of that day. I have been told that I performed servicably well on my gempukku, and got through my marriage oaths without making a fool of myself. I don’t know. But that day was the beginning of the end for Irae and me.
For a time, life went on. In public, I played the dutiful husband, and in private, Irae and I still met every day. She grew only more radiant, as if the secret we shared only added to our love. Your mother knew, of course – but as long as we were discreet, she never commented on it, and we both played our parts.
Finally, inevitably, there came the worst day of my life.
Irae and I had met, as usual, in the dojo her father ran, on the pretense of extra training. The day was bright, I remember – the sun shone on a fresh layer of ice, and the snow glistened in the light. In our excitement, we forgot to be discrete. Maybe Irae wanted me to acknowledge her, maybe I just wanted to hurt Hiroe, but whatever the reason, we threw caution to the wind.
Eventually, we ended up at one of our favorite places. There was a little brook running through the forest, nestled in such a pristine clearing. The ice on the trees was so clear, reflecting the light of the afternoon sun into a thousand different rainbows. The stream rustled and trickled through icy chasms, the only sound other than the beating of our hearts. We had been here before, but no day had been as perfect as this.
Your mother arrived shortly afterwards. She had heard about our activities in town, and was furious. While Irae had been my secret mistress, Hiroe had been content to play the dutiful wife. But when we flaunted our relationship before the whole town… well, that, she couldn’t stand.
The strike came swiftly. Both women had drawn their blades, standing in perfect silence. As I watched, the lifeblood of my only love mingled with the icy waters. Even in death, she was graceful. And with her died my heart.
The old man stared at his son intently. “If events had stopped there, I could have gone on and lived my life out for the rest of my days. Heartless, yes, but alive. It wasn’t until later, when the
priests were preparing her for burial, that we learned the truth.”
Tears glistened in Tsubasa’s eyes as he remembered. “Irae had never told me she was with child.”
“But…” Asai whispered.
Tsubasa shook his head. “In truth, it is probably no one’s fault. But your mother blamed herself, and I blamed myself. And together, we have suffered. By our actions, an innocent life was lost.” He closed his eyes and lay there in silence for several long moments. Then, he resumed, “When I am sober, I can barely stand to live with myself, the pain is so bad. And when I am drunk…” he trailed off. “You want to know why your mother never defends herself Because she, too, feels the pain, and she blames herself for it.”
Asai looked at his father, searching for the words to say. His anger had melted into something like pity, pity and emptiness. He could not bring himself to hate this broken, lost man. Finally, he whispered, “I’m sorry, Father. But…” he paused. “But I can not forgive.” Slowly, Asai walked away from his father’s deathbed, tears rimming his eyes.