Last time on FCM I shared the opening for an alternative take on Dante’s Inferno. It’s been four years since then, and I’ll tell that story sometime (about where the heck I went for four years), but today I’m bringing back First Chapter Monday (with 45 minutes to go until Tuesday, I think I can make it!).
Ninjas are pretty awesome. I don’t know anyone who would disagree with that. Except maybe people who got murdered dead by ninjas but even they probably thought their assassin was pretty cool. How could you get any cooler than this?
Ninjas have always been popular in media. I’m not sure they’re ever represented terribly accurately, however–even in Japanese media. It’s always pretty over the top, people flippin’ all over the place, flinging shuriken left and right that somehow manage to make their foe’s head pop right off on contact… but I’ve been working on something a lot more historical, and featuring a lot more ninjas looking like this:
Those aren’t necessarily ninjas–they could just be your basic, run-of-the-mill shrine maidens. But you can never be sure!
In the 1500s one warlord who almost conquered and united the warring Japanese states utilized a clandestine band of all-female ninjas who disguised themselves as itinerant priestesses wandering the countryside to perform sacred rites and rituals. They mostly gathered information as spies, but I’m pretty sure they flipped out and killed someone every now and then, as all ninjas do. It’s in their nature.
On a more serious note, Japanese history is fascinating. We don’t study it much in the United States. You can read about some of the time period I’ve been living in these past five years in that older post. But enough intro. Grab a coffee, a handful of makibishi, kick your feet up, and dive into the first chapter of SISTERS OF BLOOD AND SHADOW.
Zenkō-ji, outskirts of Kawanakajima, Shinano Province
A bead of crimson blood trickled down the little girl’s finger. She frowned, sucked at it, coppery warmth filling her mouth. The plectrum fell from her other hand onto the soft moss at her feet. It had slipped from her sweat-slicked grasp when she’d plucked her first string, startled at how terrible it all sounded, and the corner of the wooden plectrum had nicked her.
“I’ll never be able to do this,” she muttered.
Standing over her, illuminated from behind by the morning sun, her sister smiled. “It is your first day. You will get better.”
“I ought to just play it with my bare hands. Why do I need that thing anyway, Nee-chan?” The plectrum was large for her hands, but not as large as the biwa itself. For as long as she could remember her sister had played the stringed instrument, offering up pleasing melodies to the gods, teasing from it soothing sounds to help the young girl sleep on restless nights. It had always looked so large to her, as large as Nee-chan, and it felt even larger on her lap, its weight bearing down on her hands.
“If you pluck the strings with your fingers, they will become hard and calloused, and how will you ever find a husband who wants to marry you then?”
It was the wrong thing for her sister to say, and the little girl stamped her foot to drive her point home. “I’m perfectly fine with that! Then maybe I wouldn’t have to abandon my family.” She pushed the biwa out of her lap and onto the moss, folded her hands over her chest, and looked away from her sister, out at the tiled roofs beyond the garden.
Nee-chan sighed and sat down on the wide, flat rock beside her. They would always sit here together and watch the sparrows flit about in the boughs of cedar trees after long summer days running through the forest behind the temple, splashing about in the stream, catching little silver fish with their hands. But they hadn’t sat like this in months, ever since Nee-chan was promised in marriage. The little girl’s heart started to thaw with her big sister beside her once more.
“Little sister, tell me, which season is best for watching the birds?”
“Spring. Maybe summer. I don’t care.” She cut her eyes back at her sister as she turned her head away.
“I prefer to watch them build their nests in the springtime. Always flitting about here and there, collecting twigs and stealing bits of straw from the roofs. We have them with us for summer as well, you are right. But what do the birds do in the fall, when the seasons change?”
“They leave. Just like mean old sisters.”
“And they are gone all winter, it’s true.” Nee-chan patted her on the head. The little girl flinched at first, then leaned her cheek on her sister’s arm. “And what happens when it is springtime once more?”
“They come back.”
“And so will I. Life has its own seasons as well, little sister. And now it is my season to marry, to join with another family, and to have daughters of my own. But I will come back to see you, and you will come to see me, and it will be as if we were never apart.”
She looked up at Nee-chan, fighting back the tears in her eyes. “But it won’t be the same. You’ll be gone and nobody will play the biwa for the gods and I’ll have to explore the forest alone and a boar might eat me.” They had encountered a wild boar last summer. It had gored the young son of a pilgrim to death. Her father had led a band of men out into the forest to chase it down but the beast had eluded them. It ended up in the grove behind their house where the little girl had nearly run into it while playing with her sister. The stench, the sight of the creature a hand’s width away from her face as it rutted in the dirt, the boy’s blood still slick on its tusks. Memories that frightened her even now.
Nee-chan had chased it away with a stick.
Her older sister leaned down and picked up the biwa. She brushed away the dirt. “Then you must learn to play to please the gods.” And she placed the biwa back into the little girl’s lap. “Benzaiten most of all—it’s her favorite instrument and she will bring you many blessings. Perhaps she will bless you with such skill that even the boars will laugh and dance away when you play for them.”
“You’re giving me this? But what will you play?”
“I will come back to visit it, so please take good care of it. It is a dying art, the biwa. Keep it alive, as you keep my memory alive. Its tunes help the pilgrims find their way to Zenkō-ji to pay their respects to the Buddha, and now that responsibility falls to you. Father plays his part guarding the grounds to keep the priests and monks safe. And mother plays her part keeping the pilgrims well-supplied with talismans and scriptures. Now you must play yours. And know that I will be back, little sister. How could I stand to be away from you for long?” She took the little girl’s fingers and wrapped them around the plectrum. The girl winced at the pain, but the bleeding had stopped. She clutched the polished wood tight and strummed at the strings.
“You will need to tune it. The pins are wooden, they shift with the weather. It can be especially tricky to get right when it rains. But the middle one, when it is perfect, should sound like this.” And then Nee-chan sang a single, beautiful note that the little girl wished could go on forever.
“Now, see if you can make it sing like that. Try our song once more.”
She plucked the strings again. Two perfect notes that sang like Nee-chan’s voice and filled her with such excitement that she rushed the third note. A terrible sound screeched out of it, tearing a hole into her gut that felt worse than any hunger or emptiness. A cloud rolled over the sun. The little girl shivered. She wanted to take the off-tune note back.
Three men stepped into the garden through the open bamboo gate. These men were not like the usual strangers who came and went from their house year-round. Most were wayward pilgrims who took a wrong turn on the grounds of Zenkō-ji and ended up within their family’s garden. Others were more discreet, visiting only in the hours just before dawn, before the temple grounds themselves were opened. Those strangers would wake her with their chatter in the front room by the fire, speaking about supplies and movements and other things that made little sense to her. They were always gone by the first light of day.
The three men who entered the garden now wore garb of a different color. A stench followed them that threatened to wilt the chrysanthemum blossoms lining the wooden fence. Dirty smocks covered their bodies. These were no field workers seeking temporary respite from the searing heat of the day.
“Please come in.” Nee-chan’s face went pale, but she bowed, welcoming the men into the garden. Was one of these to be her husband?
Nee-chan walked to the door of the house and slid it open. The little girl watched these strangers as they walked past her. The smell of their unwashed bodies burned her nose, a sour mix of sweat and saké with a hint of rotten fish. The man in the back flashed her a toothless grin. He winked, then wiped away beads of sweat that dribbled down from beneath his bandana. Strands of black hair poked out in the back, a wildness that refused to be contained. No, Nee-chan could never marry one of these men.
Her sister stood in the doorway of the house, her mouth a firm, lipless frown. Beside her stood Kaa-chan—the girls’ mother. An ornate yukata with chrysanthemum patterns clung to her body in stark contrast to the filth of the men who approached. From within the house, the girl heard the rumblings and mumblings of their father, Tō-chan.
Without slowing, without a word, the three men walked up to the house, waved Nee-chan aside, and stepped in. The little girl frowned as they stepped onto the tatami floor beyond the threshold without removing their sandals, smashing mud and grime into the grass mats. Kaa-chan would make her stay up late for days on end to clean it all. Nee-chan bowed and slid the door shut.
At first, the only sound was a sparrow in the cedar branches overhead, chirping as it hopped from twig to twig. Then, a shuffling from within the house. Talking, but impossible to understand. Tō-chan’s voice. And then the voices of the other men, strange voices. Angry voices. Talk of sparrows, of broken promises.
The girl forced a smile as she had so many times before. With a twist she adjusted the tension on the out-of-tune string. Beyond the low fence of the garden, across the stone pavilion, stood the broad niōmon gate that led to the temple. It rose toward the heavens. Every morning at dawn she clutched Tō-chan’s legs as they passed between the large Niō statues that stood on either side of it. Fierce warriors that protected the sacred grounds of the temple, her father tried to reassure her. To her they appeared demons, the stuff of nightmares, fiends that would swoop into her house at night and take everyone away from her. On most days, even the sweltering days like this one, pilgrims and priests would fill the pavilion as they made their way to pray before the Buddha.
Today the pavilion stood empty.
The girl prayed for the Niō to come to her, to protect her. Prayed for her notes to strike true this time, for the gods to forgive her for the off-tune music, to peel away the shroud of discomfort she felt. Something had begun, she knew. She began to shiver as if in coldest winter, despite the heat of the afternoon sun.
She picked up the plectrum and plucked the strings again.
The first two notes rang true and perfect toward the heavens, just like Nee-chan’s voice.
A crash shook the smile out of her before she could play the third, before she could correct her affront to the gods. A loose slate tile slipped off the roof of the house and shattered on the ground. The sparrow overhead took flight.
One word rang clear in the murmuring that ensued.
The girl clutched the biwa tight, small hands threatening to snap the lacquered neck in two. Within the house, pottery shattered. A woman screamed. An angry shout rose up and was cut off, followed by a thud. Then two more thuds.
Kaa-chan. Tō-chan. Nee-chan.
She stood up as the door slid open. The man who’d winked at her wiped his brow. Crimson stained his fingers. A glistening red streak screamed against the filth of his smock. Her mother lay on the floor, visible only from the neck up, the rest of her hidden behind the whitewashed wall of the house. Blood soaked into the grass tatami mats. Her vacant eyes gazed out at a sky she could no longer see. Somewhere in the darkness of the house beyond, the other men rummaged around, muttering to one another. Nobody else spoke.
Nee-chan stepped into the light, blood soaking her yukata. “Run,” she uttered, as the men dragged her back inside.
The little girl screamed.
Biwa in one hand, plectrum in the other, she bolted for the opening in the fence, toward Zenkō-ji and its sanctuary across the way. A man was on her before she’d gotten halfway across the garden. He threw her to the ground. Gravel dug into her knees. The man clasped one hand around her mouth, the other around her arm to pin it to her back. Pain raged through her shoulder. She tried to shout but only got a mouthful of sour grime from the man’s calloused palm. The dry skin cut against her lips as she squirmed.
How will you ever find a husband who wants to marry you then?
With a swift kick back, she planted her heel in the man’s groin.
He yanked his hand off her mouth and cried out. She scrambled to get away, but he held her arm tight. The brute grunted, pulled the girl up off the ground, suspended by her left wrist. Her shoulder twisted around, threatened to slip out of socket as she dangled there in the air. Her finger throbbed, had begun to bleed again where she’d cut herself. Something inside her head pounded, like drums beating in the night. She grit her teeth and swung the plectrum in her free hand hard and fast. A deep gash opened in the man’s arm. Ribbons of blood streaked across the garden, splashing on the white chrysanthemum blossoms.
He grabbed at her with his other arm, but she caught it with a counter-swing and sliced it open as well. The man collapsed to his knees and yelled for the others. The girl slung the biwa over her back by its strap, tucked the bloody plectrum into her yukata, and ran.
Her heart pounded with each step. A loose stone caught her right foot and down she went. She yelped as her wrist twisted beneath her. Her sandal tore loose, knees bleeding. She clambered to her feet and dashed toward the niōmon of Zenkō-ji. One bare foot slapped on the warm stones polished smooth by the hundreds of pilgrims who passed this way every day.
Except there were no pilgrims today. Nobody wandered through any of the side streets.
Still, she screamed for help.
Two men appeared from the other side of the tall niōmon, standing on the threshold of the temple grounds. Polished plates of armor hung from their chests. One brandished a naginata, its curved blade glinting in the sunlight at the end of a long pole. The other drew a katana from his belt. A crest adorned their armor, of two sparrows amidst bamboo trees. A crest she had seen often around the temple grounds. A crest Tō-chan had warned her about. Men to avoid, to never trust. Men who had brought death down upon the plains of Kawanakajima and the surrounding villages countless times over the years. The sparrows of the daimyō Uesugi Kenshin.
The girl skidded to a stop. She turned and ran for the bamboo grove at the outskirts of the temple grounds where she’d run into the boar. She thought if it saw these men, it may gore them, may slow them down. Somewhere behind her men shouted for her to stop, to come back.
Empty. Every street. Every house. As if the gods had spirited away everyone in and around the temple. Everyone except for the bad men, the soldiers. The brutes that stank of salt and rot.
Cries went up from side streets. Birds chirped as they flew overhead. She wished she could fly too, take to the skies and leave this place, returning at night to peck out the eyes of the men who had come to her house.
Past the last three thatched-roof houses she ran, past the stone lanterns that lit the edge of the creek at night to prevent wayward children and drunken men from tumbling into the waters. She gasped as the cold water lapped at her ankles, as sharp rocks cut at her bare foot. Across the creek she trudged, tears streaming from her eyes. The shade of the grove offered no respite from the humid day. She wished she could lay in the creek to keep cool, as she and her sister had done many times before.
As she knew she never could again.
More men came, shouting and pointing toward the grove. She flung herself down, crunching leaves and beetles beneath her fingers as she pulled herself into a crawlspace between two moss-covered boulders. She’d come here before. Her sister had shown her the way when they would play in the forest on those long summer days. The girl pulled her feet inside, knees up against her chin. She’d grown—there was no room to turn around. Her body shook when she breathed, harder and harder, trying to get it under control as the footsteps came. The filthy men walked through the grove. Looking, stalking. She did not understand why they would want her, why they would care about the temple caretaker’s daughter. She was but a speck in the eyes of the gods, great and small.
A huntsman spider larger than her hand skittered up the mossy rock inches from her face. She sucked in her breath, held her eyes open despite the urge to blink, afraid that if she closed them for even an instant the spider would disappear. The thought of not knowing where it had gone scared her even more.
Leaves rustled outside the crawlspace. The spider lifted a hairy leg and tested it against her forehead. She let slip a whimper. A deep voice outside in the grove called to others she could not see. It climbed onto her face, spinning around, its hairy legs tickling her cheeks, and it took every ounce of her resolve not to scream. She could smash it against the rock, but it would try to bite her first if it sensed danger. She clenched her jaw, let it crawl, explore her face. And then, after an eternity, it clambered down the outside of her clothes and skittered out of the hole, out into the forest.
For hours she sat there, head against the rock, tears dripping from her eyes, counting her breaths. When she had counted one thousand breaths without hearing a sound outside, she slipped her legs out and pushed her way back into the grove.
The sun rode low over the western horizon, bathing the bamboo stalks in warm orange light. There were no signs of men—soldiers or otherwise—in any direction. She staggered through the forest, the biwa jostling around on her back, threatening to tear free and clatter to the ground. The strap clung on by a thread, torn when she’d scrambled into her hiding place. She would have to fix it.
At the edge of the grove, the sight on the plains of Kawanakajima beyond sucked what little energy remained from her legs. She collapsed to her knees, covering her face with bloody, dirty hands. Hands that had never known a day of hardship or labor. Hands that existed to play the biwa for the pleasure of the gods.
Hands that had now cut a man.
Below, thousands of armored warriors marched in formation. Banners bearing the sparrow crest flapped in the winds among the ranked soldiers.
Do not trust the sparrow-crested men.
It was beginning again, the dreaded war she’d heard stories about. It had nearly taken Tō-chan’s life before she was born and had come back for him a second time on these same plains when she was a baby at Kaa-chan’s breast. Thousands killed, innocent and guilty alike, indiscriminate in its violence, in its wrath, like a tsunami rolling into shore, washing away everything in its path. Righteous and unclean. Beautiful and ugly. None were safe.
The girl stood, clutching the wooden plectrum in her hand, teeth bared at the sight down below.
The war had come back for Tō-chan and claimed his life. And it had taken Kaa-chan and Nee-chan with it.
She would have her revenge.
She was only six years old.