Our Writer’s Choice series continues with this tale of two simple monks.
Two Quiet Days
By Rusty Priske
Edited by Fred Wan
Tanari reached for his stick, propped up next to his simple cot, and used it to pull himself to his feet. He tried to ignore the screaming in his knees and back, but each day they got a little louder and harder to push into the background. Even his hands, which still remembered the feeling of wrapping around a bow and drawing the string back, were swollen at the knuckles and he had to make an effort to hold the walking stick.
The stick was maple, stained and polished to a deep red. The head was carved into the shape of a wasp, wings tucked tight to its body. Tanari had been happy with the simple stick he had found while strolling through the forest some years back, but this more ornate version was given to him by a young Crane artisan who had clearly put a lot of time and effort into it. The aged monk preferred less ostentation, but he had to admit that the stick was quite beautiful.
A bowl of cold water and a simple breakfast waited for him on the table in the adjoining room. He never asked that this be done, but it always was, and he never complained.
He wasn’t hungry this morning, however.
He took a sip of the water before thrusting his hands into the bowl, enjoying the coolness on his cracked skin.
Tanari retrieved a small rolled parchment from a nook near his cot and tucked into his sleeve. He then left his room and walked, slowly but not glacially, into the main temple area. A young attending monk hurried to the master, bowing deeply. It took Tanari a moment before he recognized him. He was a former Akodo who had seen his share of battle – Tanari chuckled a little inside at the fact that he thought him ‘young’.
The fact that he had to stretch to recall him at all was somewhat disturbing. He had served at this temple for six months. He had personally served Tanari many times.
The old monk found it odd that simple, day-to-day things were becoming less set in his mind while he could still remember the first time he shot a bow or the first time he fell in love.
The former Akodo helped Tanari kneel, at his request, so he could pay proper homage to the kami. He did not do so every day – kneel that is – but it seemed important for him to do so on this day. There were so many kami who he needed to address – even Yoritomo. Tanari always felt awkward giving words of worship to Yoritomo, whom he had known as nothing more than a great man. Still, if any deserved his homage, it was him.
Things change, he thought to himself. People change. Even the world changes.
The ‘young’ monk helped Tanari back to his feet and asked the master if he wished to be taken to the library or school – both innovations added to the temple due to the efforts of Tanari himself.
The man once known as Tsuruchi declined. “I believe I will go for a walk in the forest.”
Green shoots appeared where only bare branches hung the previous day. Had it been only a day since he last walked here? It probably had been a week. Sometimes the days ran together now.
A rustle in the undergrowth caused him to turn, “K’mee?”
Of course it was not. It was a grey rabbit, hopping into the path, freezing for a moment while it assessed the man that stood before it, and then continuing on its way, completely unafraid.
The man that had once killed someone from a hundred yards without his target ever knowing he was there had long since put down the bow. Not all monks turn from martial pursuits – in fact, some become monks in order to pursue certain aspects of them – but for Tanari, over time, he felt the call of other things. There was a time that he would have laughed at the idea of serenity but without ever seeking it, he found it in the leaves of the forest where he walked.
It was K’mee, ironically, who had taught him to appreciate the world around him. She would laugh at the idea that this meant that one should not kill to eat. Yet her existence – her grasp of things that most monks who had chased then their entire lives could never understand – had made him realize that the universe was not defined solely by the way it interacted with men.
As Tanari approached the river his mind went back to that morning, years ago, when K’mee, his true friend, had asked to be taken there.
* * * * *
“I love this river.” K’mee’s voice sounded tired to his ears.
“Is this really a river? It is neither deep or wide. I think it is more of a stream.”
K’mee smiled, in that way that Tanari had grown to recognize. “If I had a boat, I could follow it away from here. To me, that makes it a river.”
Tanari looked away from her face, with the mottled fur more gray every year. He instead looked at the glistening light dancing across the water. “Would you like that? Do you want me to bring a boat?”
K’mee did not respond but Tanari imagined that she was smiling.
“If there is anything…” his words trailed off.
“My tribe mates have been gone for a long-long time.” The doubled words indicative of the Nezumi speech patterns had mostly vanished in the years K’mee spent among the monks. For it to return now, he knew, she must be very tired.
“They are remembered as heroes.”
“Yes. I will join them soon. For now I only wish to be with-with… family.”
Tanari looked back at his dear friend, head held gently in his lap. He no longer tried to suppress his tears. “You are the noblest person I have ever known.”
She smiled again. “I am what you taught me. Do you remember the day we met?”
“You tried to explain to me what enlightenment is.”
It was Tanari’s turn to smile. “As if I could explain such a thing. Yet you are the one who found it. I never did.”
“Because you sought it too hard, I think.”
“Once. Now I am content.” If there was a knowing look in K’mee’s eyes, Tanari did not see it. Instead he continued, “I never would have thought that day that you would become… well, what you have become. But of course, back then none of us knew what the Nezumi were capable of… at all.”
“I am not sure even we knew. I was always worried that I had failed them when I did not answer the great chief’s call…”
Tanari shook his head. “You have done so much. Your path took you a different way, but you all saved everything – you just did it one person at a time.”
K’mee laughed. “You forget. I am just a simple monk.”
“Monk you may be, but there is nothing simple about you.”
The two sat quietly for a time. They watched the water and the overhanging leaves rustling in the soft breeze. Finally K’mee said, “Can you-you help me sit up.” Tanari could hear the weakness in her voice. She was far from that shy, inquisitive, nervous creature he had first met, all those years ago. He shifted her, gently, so she was leaning back against his chest, looking out across the stream.
Not a stream, Tanari thought to himself. It is a river.
“This is not-not, the way of…” K’mee struggled with her words. “This is not how, Nezumi end-end.”
“You have always done things your own way.”
They sat for a few more minutes before K’mee said, “Can… you… sing… for-for… me?”
Tanari did not answer. His voice was not well suited to singing, but he did not think she cared.
The sun rises once again
To spend the day with friends
Through the forest and across the fens
Until once more the good day ends
Through the trees the moonlight streams
Down the face of Lady Moon beams
Tanari trailed off and placed his hand on K’mee’s chest to feel her stillness. He sat silently for a few minutes and then, voice cracking, he finished the song.
* * * * *
It had been years since he sat here with K’mee, but he still found the time to visit the spot. He lowered himself gingerly to the ground, and leaned against the tree, looking over the river. He placed his stick on the ground beside himself but a small slope conspired with gravity for it to roll away, out of his easy reach.
He regretted that. He would not wish anyone to think he had cast it aside – that would cost that young Crane some of his joy in crafting it. The ache in his back and the weariness in his limbs won out, however, and he did nothing to retrieve it.
Let another appreciate its beauty and craftsmanship. He no longer needed it.
Looking across the face of the water he noted that it was no deeper nor wider than it had been, yet he still considered it a river, rather than merely a stream. He had never thought of it as a stream again.
Tanari pulled the scroll from his sleeve and opened it. Inside was a list of things – messages – that he intended for the monks of the Brotherhood. These were things that others would call pieces of wisdom, but he did not think that there was anything in it they did not already know. He just knew that sometimes people needed to be reminded of who they were and what they could accomplish, given enough motivation.
The scroll also included some last instructions, but those were of a more mundane matter.
He read the list and suddenly wished he had thought to bring a quill and ink. He had so much more that he wanted to say just then. Things seemed so clear. It was as if the universe had opened up to him, giving him a peek at the existence behind the curtain.
If I had a boat, he thought, I could follow it away from here. That makes it a river