I. Parker: The Old Men of Omi

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I. Parker The Old Men of Omi
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    The Old Men of Omi
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I. J. Parker

The Old Men of Omi

Chapter One

Old Man Wakiya and the Spring Festival

They staggered from the neighbor’s farm followed by laughter and shouts: “Watch out or the kappa will jump out of a paddy and snatch ya.”

The two old men, white-haired and white-bearded, were drunk out of their skulls and hooted with laughter.

Juro raised a jug toward the moon. “Bring on yer kappa! We’ll fight’em.”

His friend Wakiya snorted. “Me, I’d rather have a woman than a kappa. I’d even take a fox.”

They bumped into each other, laughing and holding each other up.

“Yer drunk!” Wakiya said. “Gimme the wine. Yer gonna drop it.”

“Never! Come to poppa.” Juro kissed the jug. “Better’n a child any day. Children are a pain.”

Wakya burped. “That bitch my son married. She’s waiting at home with a broom to beat me. Gimme that jug.”

Juro passed the jug over and stood swaying as his friend raised it and drank, spilling wine all over himself. “Pah,” he spat. “Yer kid peed all over me.” He threw the jug back and giggled.

Juro caught it by some miracle. “Watch out, ya almost killed him,” he grumbled.

This struck both of them as hilarious, and they set off down the moonlit load, arms about each other’s shoulders, singing. They were singing different songs, which led to another argument about who had the correct words, and the jug changed hands again.

By the time they reached Juro’s farm, the jug was empty. They embraced tearfully, and parted.

Wakiya staggered onward, weaving this way and that, nearly falling into an irrigation ditch once or twice, and talking to himself.

“What a day! I’m beat. Been dancing like a boy! Ha,ha. And the women! Rokuro’s wife’s got big titties. Got a feel, but she slapped me. Amida, I wanted to give her one! He, he. He’s not dead yet …”

He broke off when he saw the figure of a man sitting beside the narrow road. He squinted. The man looked familiar. But a cloud passed over, and he shook his head. “What’s he doing out here anyway?” he asked himself.

The man waited patiently as Wakiya zigzagged toward him. When they were finally face to face, he asked, “Are you Wakiya?”

Wakiya swayed and nodded. “Tha’s me. I know ya. What’s yer name?’

“You don’t know me.”

“Mmm. Maybe I do and maybe I don’t.” Wakiya took a stumbling step and halted again. “Got my own place th’other side of the woods. “ A thought occurred to him. Perhaps he could avoid his daughter-in-law’s ire. “Ya want to come? There might be a drop of wine?”

The other man got to his feet. “Thanks. I’ll walk with you and give you a hand. It’s dark under the trees. You might take a fall.” He laughed.

Wakiya chuckled. “Yer not a kappa, are ye?”

“No. Come along,” the stranger said impatiently, taking his arm. “They must be waiting for you at home.”

“Yeah, that bitch of a daughter-in law’s gonna beat me. An old man! There’s no respect for old people these days.” He hiccupped. “Yer not from here, are ya?”

“Not anymore.”

They were in the trees now. It was too dark to see the stranger’s face, but he was looking about him as if he were searching for something. Wakiya said, “See any foxes?” and giggled.

That was when the stranger turned and took Wakiya by his scrawny neck. He shook the old man violently. Wakiya waved his arms and gurgled. He managed to knee the man in the groin. The stranger cursed under his breath and relaxed his grip a little.

Even in his drunken stupor, Wakiya knew his danger. He shouted in his thin reedy voice.

“Shut up!” snarled the stranger and squeezed again.

Wakiya kicked and scratched and made hoarse sounds until the stranger pushed him away with another curse.

The old man fell to his knees. He wailed and struggled into a stumbling run trying to get away.

But the stranger was not drunk, and he was younger and faster, and he had a rock in his hand. The rock smashed into Wakiya’s skull before he had taken four steps. Wakiya arched back with a choking cry, then sank to his knees. “Wha … wha …” he mumbled, as the rock hit him again, and again.

Wakiya, finally silent, fell forward on his face. His white hair now made a red patch on the dark road.

Chapter Two

The Visit to Otsu

It was spring again.

A blue sky hung over the mountains, birds of prey circled in the clear air, touches of pale green shone brightly from among the deeper green of pines and cryptomerias on the mountain side, and all along the broad highway, paddy fields had been flooded in readiness for the young rice plants.

A time for high spirits and optimism.

The small procession of officials from the capital rode along at a sedate pace behind a front rider with a white banner. The two riders who followed him wore fine clothing, one of them a green brocade hunting coat and white silk trousers tucked into his boots, the other a red coat over black trousers, plus blue trimmed half armor. Behind them followed six men in more sober black robes and hats, while a sedan chair, carried by four bare-legged porters, and a series of pack horses managed by servants, followed.

They traveled sedately because of the sedan chair. The black robes belonged to government officials traveling on the emperor’s business, while the two men in front seemed to be on an outing.

All but the man in green brocade enjoyed the fresh air, the green rice fields, the budding cherry trees.

His companion had been watching him anxiously for a while and now said in a bracing tone, “You’ll have a grand time, sir. His lordship’s been looking forward to your visit. I’m sure he’ll do you proud.”

Akitada started from his abstraction and looked across. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, Tora. I imagine so. It will be good to see Kosehira again. I’m very glad he got this appointment.”

“He’s much closer to us now. You’ll both have many other chances for visits back and forth.”

“Hmm.” Akitada looked about to gauge their progress. They were more than halfway between the capital and Otsu on the shores of Lake Biwa.

“Are you feeling all right?” Tora asked. “We can rest if you like.”

Akitada frowned. “I’m well enough, Tora. Don’t forget that I have ridden this distance and much more many times in my life.”

“That was then, sir. You haven’t really been this far since you were wounded.”

“That was eighteen months ago. I’m perfectly well.” He said it sharply to hide the fact that he was tired and that his back and backside both hurt from the unaccustomed time in the saddle. To prove that all was well, he leaned forward and patted his horse. The gray, beautiful though he still was, had also slackened in his energy. They were both past their prime.

Tora glanced back at the straggling procession behind them. “I’ll try to get them to speed up a little,” he said, swinging his horse about. “We’ll be in Otsu by sunset.”

Akitada glanced after him. Tora was still as agile and energetic as ever, yet he, too, had suffered serious wounds in his master’s service. Akitada had taken him on many years ago when they were both young men. Tora had been a deserter, a peasant who had been conscripted for the wars in the north and had ended up beating an officer. When they met, he had claimed the name “Tora” for “tiger,” and proved his right to it. But to Akitada’s amusement, he had lately taken to using his birth name and ennobled it by linking it with the village Sashima where he had been born. He was now Lieutenant Sashima Kamatari. Neither the double name nor the rank were strictly legitimate. They had become necessary in Kyushu where Akitada had struggled with the governorship of Chikuzen province. After years of disdain for the “good people,” Tora clearly enjoyed his new status these days.

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