The young woman kneeling
beside Sugawara wore a plain brown kimono. Her face was
sunburned, weathered from salt wind.
"How do you feel,
samurai?" she asked.
imagined he still clutched the waterlogged timber used to
drift to shore, but it was only his sword. He lay on a
tatami mat, shaded by fishing nets draped to block the glare
from morning sun.
"I am alive." After the
destruction of his fleet he had floated upon broken timbers
-- the spine of his flagship -- waiting for the ocean to
swallow him whole. The last thing he remembered were smoke
columns from burning ships occluding the moon.
The young woman handed
him a bowl of pickled vegetables, which he devoured, and a
cup of fresh water. "You were fevered when I pulled you
from the ocean." She bathed his face with cool water. "My
name is Kiyomi."
Sugawara thought it prudent not to speak his Clan name
aloud. Even in these hinterlands his head might bring a
"Two nights ago," she
said, "we saw a great fleet from Edo sailing under the
moon. Later, a bright red glow lit the horizon. We
wondered if anyone survived the battle."
"It seems that only I,
once again, survive." He fell silent, remembering the
destruction of his fleet, the helpless screams of his loyal
Kiyomi helped him to
stand. Sugawara was a large man, his arms and legs cabled
with muscles, his eyes deep and penetrating.
He motioned to the
fishing nets and boats rotting in the sun. "Where are your
"Our men have gone to
civil war, or are dead from bandit raids. Only a village
priest remains and a few underage boys."
"The women?" he asked.
"Hiding. They are
"What do they fear?"
"At the moment, you, my
His eyebrows crowded
together. "Why me?"
"You are samurai, the
sea surrendered your life. We have been praying for the
gods to send help. That's why I risked the wrath of the
Pale One to rescue you. Otherwise, you would have been
dashed to death on those black rocks." She pointed out the
door of the fishing shack to the surf pounding like distant
"Why would the gods send
me to help a village of women?" Sugawara mused out loud.
Kiyomi shrugged her
brown shoulders. "If the gods heeded our prayers they would
send help from the sea. We are Ama."
Sugawara had heard of
the Ama. They harvested seaweed, lobsters and abalone. The
occasional pearl, if their karma was good. They were
simple, unassuming people.
He fingered the stiff,
dry nets. "Why aren't the boats harvesting? Why have the
fishing nets not been mended?"
Kiyomi licked her lips.
"Those questions are best answered by our village priest,
master. If you but ask I will bring you to him."
Sugawara saw no reason
not to accede to her wish. She had, after all, saved his
life, and he still felt much too weak to strike out into the
countryside alone. He needed these people until he regained
his strength and returned to his quest to reclaim the honor
of his family name.
Kiyomi led him through
empty streets towards a timber and cut-stone house. Inside,
an ancient man sat cross-legged, his thin face and beard
both greying with age. His shoulders were bowed, as if
burdened by a heavy weight. Sugawara and Kiyomi knelt
"Is this the life you
saved, Kiyomi?" the priest asked. His robes were old and
Sugawara answered, "I
was the captain of a vast pirate fleet that harassed Chinese
shipping, capturing silks and spices intended for Nagasaki.
The Shogun sent his navy after me and sank my fleet in a
great night battle. Only I escaped the destruction."
"May I touch your sword,
Sugawara hesitated. His
katana had been in his family for generations. It was the
only legacy tying him to his father.
"I wish to examine the
hilt," the priest explained, "and see if it is the sword I
dreamed it to be."
Sugawara gave the priest
his sword. The old man fingered the weapon with claw-like
hands. His face brightened as his thumb caressed the
chrysanthemums carved in the hilt shaped like a Black
"Yes, this is the katana
'Falling Flowers', a renowned weapon forged by the
swordmaster, Ohta, centuries ago. Only one man carries this
sword. A great warrior...and a dangerous ronin with a heavy
price of gold on his head."
"I have many enemies,
that is true," Sugawara said, resheating his sword in its
saya. A hard smile touched his lips. "But what man does
not, if he is a man?"
"Samurai, your past is
your affair. What concerns me is your deliverance, as
foreseen in my dream. You are here, by the will of the
gods, to help our village."
Sugawara shook his head
doubtfully. "I have but one fate. To kill the traitor who
wiped out my Clan when I was but a boy."
The priest leaned
forward. "Where do you seek this enemy?"
"As foretold by the
sorcerer Lung, at the end of my life. There I will hack his
heart from his body and feast upon it."
"Until that day arrives,
is it not possible you might be called upon by the gods to
do less significant work?"
this. "The world is full of kami, both malicious and divine
spirits who trouble the realm of mortal man." He rubbed the
side of his face. "I suppose such methods are not above
"Troops will scour the
coastline for survivors of the sea battle," the priest told
him. "There is a cave nearby. We will hide you from the
Shogun's men. After you defeat the Pale One, you may
continue your blood quest."
"Then I accept your
terms," Sugawara said, bowing. "However, I must know what
duties I am to perform. What is the Pale One, and why do
your people fear it?"
The priest grew solemn.
"Sharks, tides, dangerous currents, they all serve to make
the Ama life a difficult one. But never have we met a foe
like this. Surely, a demon from lower Hell sent to plague
"What is it, exactly?"
The priest spread his
hands apart in ignorance. "A manifestation of an angry god,
or a monster from the deepest depths of the sea who has lost
its way in the shoals. We are in the gathering season and
have not gone onto the water for weeks. Kiyomi, I believe,
is the only one to see it up close and live."
Sugawara turned to her.
"Can you describe it?"
"I only glimpsed it,
master," she said, "but it skates across the water, leaving
a glowing wake. Two eyes burn like lamps in its horrific
face. It rose quickly from the depths under my boat,
capsizing it and my tubs of abalone. It scraped my side,
tearing like shark skin." She shyly showed him the healing
wound. "It submerged after swimming for about a ri,
searching the coastline, finally disappearing west in the
evening mist. I swam to another boat and we rowed home as
fast as we could. We were terrified."
The priest said,
"They've gone back onto the water at night to capture squid
by lamp light, but this creature will have none of it. It
seems it has the nature of a territorial beast."
"The last time it
attacked, two girls drowned. Their bodies were never
recovered. Now, no one goes near the water. We have a few
gardens, but the vegetables they grow can not sustain us."
Sugawara looked at
Kiyomi. "Yet, when you saw me drifting in the currents, you
swam out to rescue me. Why?"
Her eyes dropped to her
lap. "I knew of the dream our priest had about a strong man
sent from the sea to rescue us. I thought if you were he, I
should make an effort on behalf of my village to accept your
Sugawara thought her
story sounded too convenient to be the entire truth, but he
didn't press her. He had more important concerns clamoring
for his attention.
"I must see this
creature," he said, "before I make an assessment of how it
might be killed."
The priest frowned. "No
one from this village will accompany you onto the water,
"Perhaps I can take
someone who has already proven her bravery," Sugawara
suggested. He glanced at Kiyomi.
She smiled. "Yes,
master, I would be glad to!"
The priest cautioned
them both. "It's not wise to attempt this expedition until
the soldiers have finished searching for survivors. Until
then, you must remain hidden in the cave."
Sugawara agreed. "I
will go there now. I don't want to bring further
retribution upon your village from the Shogun."
Grateful tears welled in
the old man's eyes. "Thank the gods you've come to our
"I have as yet done
nothing, ancient one," Sugawara said sternly. "This monster
may be a punishment laid on your village by your ancestors
for some past transgression. In that case, I can do
little. But, if this creature is mortal, then perhaps we
can win the day. We shall see."
Sugawara allowed Kiyomi
to lead him down a wandering path along the rocky
shoreline. She carried food and water so his stay in the
cave might be as comfortable as humanly possible.
They climbed the black,
glistening boulders, the surf spray showering them.
Ducking, Kiyomi disappeared into a narrow passage in the
rock face. Sugawara followed.
Limp seaweed hung from
the walls. A natural chimney opened to the blue sky and he
understood why this place was considered special.
"When the tide rises,"
he said, "this lower chamber is filled. One must reach
those upper ledges to remain dry."
"Yes," Kiyomi said.
"Spume from crashing waves blows through the opening to the
top, drenching anyone hidden there. The armies will not
find you. We've used it before to hide armor and weapons
taken from dead samurai we found from past battles. We then
sold the goods to greedy merchants."
Sugawara had no doubt
the village still kept a hidden cache of weapons on hand.
Most small villages did as insurance against the many wars
and battles waged between local daimyos.
Kiyomi spread a coarse
blanket, set out the meager food and water supplies. "You
may light a tiny fire during low tide," she said. "I will
bring wood later."
Sugawara noticed the
charred remains of an old fire, half buried in the sand, and
knew he was not the first to use this chamber. He settled
down to wait.
Kiyomi knelt down beside
"Call me Takeo, it is my
"I heard you say you
came from a family of wealth and honor?"
Sugawara bunched his
fists as the old hate rose in him like bile. "Yes, before
it was destroyed by a traitor, he who was a trusted vassal
of my father's."
"You have been to Edo,
He nodded. "Many times,
as a boy."
"Are the women in court
"Very much so," Sugawara
said. "But their beauty is fashioned with white masks, wigs
and painted features, Kiyomi. With such magic, even old
crones can be made pretty."
She laughed. Finally,
she whispered half to herself, "I should like to be
beautiful that way."
Sugawara had already
seen much of the country in the five years he had been on
the run. During that time he met many people, known many
places. As a result, he had formulated ideas that were not
accepted as traditional. He thought, whenever he allowed
himself time to consider it, this was the result of his own
hardships, his own fight to understand the world and how it
had a habit of grinding innocent people into dust.
"People are what they
are, Kiyomi," he said. "You are not, by the way, unpleasing
to the eye."
She dipped her head and
He covered her hand with
his. "Few have the courage you exhibited by coming to my
rescue. I owe you my life, Kiyomi. I do not forget my
Her face reddened. "Takeo-san,
there is something I must tell you."
"Speak," he commanded.
"I, too, had a dream
about a man rising from the sea." Her eyes were wide and
dark. "In it, he slew a great sea devil devouring my
village. In gratitude, I gave myself to him and he left me
a son before returning to the sea."
"Dreams are often
prophetic. Then again, sometimes they have no more meaning
than sparrows' tears."
Kiyomi smiled. "I will
return with a fish oil lamp and wood for a small fire.
Don't forget to climb into the chimney or you will be
inundated by seawater. Goodbye, Takeo-san."
She left him. That
night, as the tide water rose, he climbed onto the highest
ledge he could reach. The crashing waves flooded his
chamber. Spume sprayed past him through the narrow rock
When the tide withdrew,
he climbed down and slept. Later, Kiyomi brought food and
water. The days passed uneventfully.
Kiyomi tapped her gane,
a tool used to pry abalone from the sea bed, on the side of
the boat and muttered a prayer for luck.
Sugawara shipped the
oars of their boat and helped her lower a wooden cask used
to hold the abalone.
She rubbed the juice of
mugwort leaves into her mask so it wouldn't fog up. She
wore thin underclothing and a net bag around her waist to
hold her harvest.
Sugawara sat in the
center of the boat. In his hands was a great black bow; a
quiver of arrows across his back. A bundle of spears also
lay in the boat. As he suspected, the villagers did have a
weapons cache and had gladly given him whatever weapons he
thought he would need under the circumstances.
The entire village, even
the priest, had seen them off. Sugawara and Kiyomi had
hauled the boat towards the water; the villagers were afraid
even to do this, fearing it might further enrage the sea
Kiyomi slipped over the
side of the boat, her face splotched from the cold water.
"If I see anything, I'll come right up," she promised.
Sugawara nodded. "Be
Kiyomi took several deep
breaths and slid under the choppy waves. Sugawara waited,
an arrow knocked. A few bubbles swirled to show where
Kiyomi had gone down, but soon these were erased by the
action of the waves slopping against the hull.
He glanced towards
shore. They were some distance out, near the point of a
broken headland. The villagers were but specks on the
beach. From this perspective he saw the coast was riddled
with many small coves.
Kiyomi surfaced, making
a melancholy whistle as she gasped for air between pursed
lips. "There's abalone down there," she said brightly,
"between a cluster of rocks and seaweed."
"Is this where you first
saw the Pale One?"
She hung on the side of
the boat, her brown arms sleek with water. "Yes, Takeo-san,
but he's not down there now."
"We'll stay, hoping to
draw its attention."
Kiyomi, her breath
regained, slipped back under the water. As the day
progressed she filled the floating cask with abalone. Later,
she rested in the boat and ate a sparse lunch, sharing it
"Look," she pointed to
"I see them," Sugawara
said. The villagers were launching boats. They had finally
decided to try their luck and were soon clustered around
Sugawara for protection.
He sometimes had
difficulty discerning whether the pale shape moving
underwater was human. Once, a triangular fin swirled near
his boat. He let an arrow fly and the small shark
thrashed. The Ama women slipped a noose around its tail and
dragged it backwards until it drowned. The day waned and
the boats returned to shore. It had been a good harvest.
Later that night, Sugawara met the priest, the villagers in
"The beast did not
appear," he said. "We must assume it is not as territorial
as previously thought."
"Will you go out again
tomorrow?" the priest asked.
The women stood silent,
waiting for Sugawara's answer.
"I must see this ocean
beast if I am to kill it," he said. "There is no other way
to fight a battle."
For the next several
days, he and Kiyomi searched the rocky shoreline. There
were many coves and inundations to explore. Twice, they
almost hulled their boat, but Sugawara wanted to inspect any
underwater lairs which might be usable by the beast.
They found nothing.
Two days later,
returning from yet another fruitless expedition, he heard
screams from around the headland. As they rounded the point
he saw to his amazement a great shape amongst the Ama boats,
the women scrambling into them, terrified.
Kiyomi cried. "The Pale One!"
Sugawara knelt and let
fly three arrows. The first two missed before he got the
range right. The third black shaft hit solid. To his
amazement, the arrow bounced off the creature's tough hide.
It turned towards him, eyes glowing like flames, its many
fins churning the water. Incredibly, its sinister heartbeat
sounded like a Taiko drum. Sugawara picked up a heavy spear
and launched it with all his strength as the creature dipped
its flat nose and submerged.
Boats fled towards the
beach. The women were crying that they had lost someone.
Kiyomi screamed, her fist to her mouth, when she saw the
body of an Ama girl face down in the surf. Sugawara, his
heart hammering, rowed their boat towards the body and
pulled it from the cold water. They followed the last boats
in. A minute later he saw the sea creature breach several
hundred feet away, following the shoreline west.
The Ama women wept and
wailed with fright. "We thought it had gone," they said.
"We thought it was frightened because we had a man in the
village. But it fears nothing. You struck it with weapons,
and it only killed again."
Sugawara examined the
dead woman as much as propriety allowed. He had seen many
dead people in his lifetime, many wounds resulting from the
hacking attacks inherent in warfare. He found no wounds on
the dead girl.
"This woman died of
fright," he said, "and not from any wound delivered by the
monster. Perhaps she swallowed too much seawater in her
surprise at seeing the creature, or lost her way
underwater. The monster did not kill her, fear did."
"Then it can manifest an
aura of fear about itself, killing from a distance," the
priest claimed. "Such a thing can never be defeated."
Sugawara sat back on his
heels, arms draped over his knees. "Perhaps so." He chewed
his bottom lip. "It is surely a mystery for an animal to
"We have failed," the
priest said. Many of the women began to weep anew.
Sugawara looked up, his
dark eyes fierce. "I do not give up so easily. Kiyomi. I
want all the fish oil you can gather. Too, I want the boats
outfitted with poles and lanterns so that we may go out upon
the water tonight."
"What do you plan to do,
samurai?" asked the priest.
"Bait a trap," Sugawara
said grimly. "We will put out to sea, lamps shining to draw
the monster up from the depths. Then, if I can get close
enough, I will use a naginata to cut into its eye. Without
a doubt, that is its most vulnerable spot. If I can pierce
the naginata into its brain, it might die."
"A bold plan," observed
the priest. "And reckless."
Sugawara shook his
head. "I can think of nothing else."
After the preparations
were made Sugawara, using commands and even threats, had the
women row the boats into the lagoon. They were tied together
so if one was swamped or overturned the others would stay
afloat. He had made them, also, reveal the entire weapons
cache and he now stood in the bow of a boat, resplendent in
bamboo armor, a great bow in one hand and a naginata, a long
spear with a curved blade, at his feet.
Earlier, he had
practiced with the naginata, his feet cutting deep shapes in
the sand as me moved back and forth.
As darkness fell he
ordered the lamps lit. Pools of light illuminated the dark
water as they waited in silence. Kiyomi was with him, a yari
clutched between her hands. She looked frightened, but,
Sugawara admitted to himself, so was he. In fact, all the
women were armed. Only the priest and the children had
Sugawara reviewed his
army of Ama women and his castle of flimsy boats. He smiled
grimly. Many times he had led armies into battle, but never
one like this. They were willing to fight the unknown so
that they might resume their unadorned lives.
Sugarawa knew men would
fight men, even when the odds were against them. But he
doubted few would find the courage to face a sea monster if
they didn't have to, no matter what the reason.
"The tide changes,"
Kiyomi observed. "And, look, an evening mist spills across
the water from the land."
Sugawara's eyes ranged
over the water. Occasionally a small squid would rise up to
the light cast by the lanterns and dip back down.
"Takeo-san," one of the
Ama women, an old maiden whose muscles were still supple,
said, "I see the beast near the shoreline. It's coming this
"Yes," another woman
said, sharpening her spear point. "See how its eyes glow
like hell fire? They frighten me."
Sugawara had Kiyomi row
between the floating boats and the approaching monster. Its
fins churned the water in unison as it approached. He heard
its terrible heartbeat. It was huge, over twenty feet long
and half as wide. The wake from its flat nose washed over
its red flaming eyes and ornate armor.
"It sees us," Kiyomi
cried, "and turns!"
Sugawara ordered the women. "It will dive...there it
goes!...and breach in our midst."
"Should we light the
torches, Takeo-san?" a young Ama girl, no more than twelve,
"Yes, light them," he
ordered. Several torches blazed forth in the surrounding
boats, illuminating faces.
"We are ready," one
woman said. "We must fight," another old Ama said. "Yes,"
Kiyomi added, "fight until we win."
The Pale One rose under
the boats, capsizing two of them. The women, now knowing
what to expect, knowing the creature did not kill unless
they let its fearful aspect terrorize them, dove cleanly
into the water and scrambled into other boats. The
remaining women hurled spears at the thing as two lead
boats, a fishing net strung between them, captured the
monster, tangling its many fins.
Sugawara hopped across
three boats so he could be in the thick of the fight. He
stood in the rocking swells, firing arrow after arrow at the
thing. They bounced off its armored hide. He threw the bow
The women poured casks
of oil into the water. They flung their torches and the sea
went up in a fierce blaze, ringing the creature.
With a war cry,
Sugawara, the naginata gripped in his hands, threw himself
at the monster. The point of the spear broke against the
huge eye of the Pale One. He scrambled for purchase against
the side of the monster, flaying skin from his hands and
arms on the lacquered shark hide. Before he went under he
saw movement behind the sea monster's transparent eyes.
His hand caught the
fishing net snarled around the monster's fins. Sugawara
pulled himself up, careful not to entangle his legs, until
his head was above water. The monster's fins sculled in
unison, driving it across the sea and through the ring of
fire. Sugawara heard shouting behind him, but the noise
diminished as he and the monster quickly distanced
themselves from battle.
The thing raced across
the surface. Any faster, and the water flowing across the
flat projecting beak of the beast would drive it under the
waves -- at least for a short time until its natural
buoyancy brought it up again.
It finally turned
towards shore, heading for a deep inlet in the side of a
monstrous cliff. They entered a watery pen. A curtain of
seaweed could be lowered to hide the sheltered inlet. He
noticed the pen would be completely underwater at high tide,
thus insuring the sea devil would stay hidden from prying
Once he knew he was
safely in the lair, he released the net and swam to the pier
towards which the monster drifted. He clambered upon the
warped boards, waiting. A rather complex three-inch bamboo
tube was cleverly concealed in the creature's dorsal fin.
Used, he surmised, to provide air. There was also a clever
locking mechanism which closed the tube when the creature
was underwater for brief periods of time.
To build such a device,
he realized, required great expenditure of money. Only the
Emperor, or a very rich daimyo, could afford such an
An opening forward of
the dorsal fin sucked open, a great wound rimmed with pitch
to provide a watertight seal. When the first man came out
Sugawara's sword flashed. Others tumbled out, drawing
knives and short swords. Sugawara met them, felling men
left and right. One sailor went spinning away,
disemboweled. Another fell helpless, his legs chopped off at
The small chamber echoed
with battle as the fierce fighting raged. Spattered with
blood, Sugawara turned in his fighting stance, seeking more
Silence reigned in a
pall over the damp cavern.
"Once again, I alone
survive," he muttered, chest heaving.
"No, warrior, I, too,
live, but only for a moment."
Sugawara found the man
crumpled against log pilings. He wore a blue kimono with
gold thread. "Have no fear, samurai. I am dying; I cannot
Sugawara waved his sword
at the sea devil. "What is that thing, this place?"
Blood flecked the dying
man's lips. "An underwater chamber, used to house my
daimyo's most prized secret weapon."
"For what purpose?"
"Raids upon convoys,
foment fear among superstitious villages, spying missions in
enemy harbors. We were testing the limits of the craft when
you attacked us."
Sugawara was filled with
awe. "To imagine such a thing, to build it first in one's
mind, must have taken incredible imagination."
"Thank you, samurai."
The dying sailor smiled when he saw Sugawara's startled
reaction. "Yes, I am the father of the White Dragon. I,
through the resources of my daimyo, built this sea weapon.
My name is Ono."
Ono grimaced, fighting
his wound. "But now the secret dies with me, I'm afraid.
It is too dangerous, too deadly for one man to possess. I
spent a lifetime perfecting the design, studying new
materials and glues, new methods of construction. Now, with
my death, I wish to destroy it. I ask for your help."
"Tell me what I must
Ono motioned to a chest
containing flint and steel, casks of oil. "Burn it from the
inside. Burn its heart so no trace will remain, and nothing
like it can ever be built again."
Sugawara climbed down
through the hatch. In the dim light he saw thwarts and oar
handles to provide movement to the craft, sand bags for
ballast, cables to direct a rudder, and a Taiko drum to beat
out a rhythm. The eyes were made of translucent oyster
shells. He set the fire and hastily climbed out.
Smoke roiled from the
opening in White Dragon's head. Crackling flames consumed
the framework, the fire fed by the waterproofing lacquer
covering the sharkskin.
"Leave now, warrior,"
Ono warned. "You cannot be caught in this chamber when the
tide shifts or you will drown. There is a stairway cut in
the rock behind me. Follow it to safety."
Sugawara hefted his
sword. "I will ease your pain, if you but ask."
Ono's mouth and nose ran
freely with bright red blood. "No, I wish to die with my
progeny, my life's dream. Go."
Sugawara mounted the
stairs, following them until he stood under the stars. He
struck a trail towards the Ama village. In the grey morning
light he saw a lone figure waiting for him.
"I have killed the
monster," he told Kiyomi. "It will not trouble your village
She fell to her knees.
"You honor us!"
Sugawara pulled her to
her feet. "It is I who am honored."
She searched his bloody
face. "Now you return to your quest, Takeo-san. But, what
of my dream?"
“I am a man of war.” He
touched her hair. "However, I will return for a brief time
to your village; it is on my way."