Fiction Section: Fain Fiction
Caitlin Mannarino has been writing since elementary school. “Kana” is the first in a series of short stories under the same name.
Rule number one of a ninja is to be silent.
Rule number two, and one that is just as important, is to be wise.
The unspoken rule of a ninja is honor. Without that, a person has nothing.
It was almost eight o’clock at night. Kana, in his fitted black shinobi shozoku, sat in the shadow of a wide tree beside the second floor windows of Mr. Miazi’s house. He watched the well-lit windows and saw Miazi’s son, a two-year-old boy with dark hair and sky blue footie pajamas, moving about. Pretty plastic toys littered the floor and the boy shrieked with delight every time he crashed his planes into each other.
I am sorry for your loss, Kana thought to himself. It is very difficult to lose a father, even if he is a kingpin and a drug lord.
Studying the length of the roof, he estimated it to be about twenty paces from the son’s room to the left side of the house, where Mr. Miazi’s office windows were located. Kana stayed in his crouch as he crossed to the end of the branch where the leaves tickled the top of the roof, being careful to make sure his katanas didn’t snag. Slender but athletic, he landed lightly, with his hands and feet pressed to the roof, and then waited. The wind, cold and hard, shifted the shadows around him and he used that to keep his cover from the moonlight in case anyone was watching.
Winter is coming. Kana smiled briefly. Winter kept the world in shadows and darkness, making his job much, much easier.
He listened for the sounds of feet scurrying about, alerted by his presence, but the Miazi house went on undisturbed…for the moment. Counting the steps, Kana crossed the top of the roof until he reached the edge, where the soft yellow light from a desk lamp drove away the night. Below, from inside the room, he could hear Mr. Miazi talking in a one-sided conversation.
He’s on the phone. Kana swung down to hang over the edge of the roof.
Miazi, or someone else, had left the window open. Kana eased himself onto the frame with one hand and peered inside.
Miazi sat at his desk in his shirt sleeves and suit pants, facing away from the window and looking at the door on the other end of the room. He was reclined somewhat in his swivel chair, with one square hand tapping the desk inside a circular array of large photo frames. The lamp did not illuminate the bookshelves on the left side of the room very well, but the door to the hallway was open, and it was as bright as day out there. Through that door, Kana could see Miazi’s son’s room. The little boy was half hidden by the door. If he picked his head up, Kana would be caught.
It’s a risk I’m willing to take. Kana stood on the window sill and slipped inside like a needle through silk, landing without so much as a sigh behind Miazi’s chair. He pulled out a knife from a band on his leg, but moved for the kill just a second too late. Kana’s eyes flicked to the photo frames on the desk and their eyes locked in the reflection there.
Miazi dropped the phone and spun around, grabbing Kana’s wrist and forcing the knife away as it sped towards his chest. The kingpin’s small eyes had widened behind his wire-rimmed glasses, and Kana could see the beads of sweat building up on his neck.
He was using the photo frames as a mirror, Kana realized.
“You’ve come to kill me?” Miazi asked in a soft voice as Kana’s knife pressed closer.
Kana’s free hand whipped back, grabbed another knife from lower on his back, and rammed that one up and into the cavity of Miazi’s chest. He twisted it for good measure as Miazi’s mouth fell open and the hand on Kana’s wrist slackened. The kingpin didn’t say a word. He just let out a breath, his eyes staring up at Kana. The ninja saw his empty green eyes reflected in the kingpin’s glasses.
Miazi laughed a little. “We aren’t so different, you and I. We both live in silence and shadows. We both try to die with honor.”
Kana glared at him and twisted the knife again until a heavier stream of hot blood leaked out and began to coat the handle. Miazi’s laugh died, but his mouth was frozen in a malevolent smile. “You are a drug lord and a thief. Where is the honor in that?” Kana demanded in a gravelly whisper.
Kana removed the knife from Miazi’s chest as the man slumped forward, slipping the weapons into their places before climbing back out the window.
“We both play the game of judgment,” Miazi said.
Kana watched from the sill as Miazi slumped onto the arm of his chair, his hand red where he was holding the wound.
The kingpin smiled, an ugly twisting of his mouth. “We’ve both been pretending to be the hand of God.”
Kana rolled his eyes. When he glanced up, he saw the little boy in blue pajamas standing in the door of the room, staring at his father’s desk.
“Dad?” the boy asked. Kana climbed up and away, slipping back along the roof and into the shelter of the trees. Most of the houses around the Miazi complex were dark, and he used that to his advantage, running along the rooftops to put as much distance between him and the house as he could. Meanwhile, the little boy’s voice and Miazi’s final words echoed in his head.
I am not like him. He touched the dragon tattoo on his chest, a reminder of the animal that represented him, the one he had to symbolize. We are nothing alike.
Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.
The poet Chen Hsi-wei was born in the latter half of the sixth century, toward the end of the period of the Six Dynasties and the start of Sui rule. An old manuscript of his well-known poems, “The Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan” and “My Skull,” also includes the following brief memoir of Hsi-wei’s grandfather. Chen Shing-yi had been an officer in the army of Yang Jian, the ruthless general who usurped the throne of Northern Zhou, declaring himself Emperor Wen of Sui and uniting the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.
One summer afternoon my grandfather took my hand and walked me all the way to the Pavilion of the Five Virtues. I couldn’t have been more than five years old at the time. Did he speak to me about the five virtues? I expect he did. To lecture on obedience, courage, humility, thrift, and honesty was the usual purpose of bringing children to the Pavilion. My grandfather was a lean, strong man, a real soldier who always stood erect, who marched rather than walked. I was rather frightened of him.
As we stood outside the pavilion, he pointed up. “Hsi-wei, look at those clouds. Clouds are the sky’s thoughts. When it is thinking of joyful things, you see clouds like these, billowing white ones shaped like morsels of laughter. But on other days the sky is, as people say, of two minds. That is what it means when you see clouds that are white but also others that are gray. When the sky is grieving you see rainclouds. When it is recalling something that makes it angry the sky fills with thunderheads. What would you say the sky is thinking today, Hsi-wei?”
I was a little boy. I said I didn’t know.
“Well,” said my grandfather pensively, “to me the sky today looks sad, as if its mind were brimming over with shameful memories and bitter thoughts.”
“Bitter thoughts? What are bitter thoughts, Grandfather?”
“Thoughts the sky would prefer to drive away with sunlight.”
That was the day my grandfather taught me to look at clouds.
In my twelfth year Grandfather became anxious that the war threatened our province. He decided that we should go north and take refuge at an inn where he was well known. I remember my mother crying when we left our house, how she touched the objects we left behind, especially the humblest, her pots and kitchen utensils. The inn was hard by Shulin-Lan, the Blue Forest. As it happened, the fighting veered to the south and we only stayed a week. While we were there my grandfather, who now seemed to me a little less formidable and slightly more affectionate, asked me to accompany him on a walk through the forest. Shulin-Lan was thick with beeches, just the kind of trees that invited a boy to climb them; but, of course, it was most famous then as now for its pines.
As we walked my grandfather spoke a little about the war—or, rather, he spoke of war in general. He called it the worst of all catastrophes. “Floods and earthquakes kill thousands, but they don’t degrade people. War disgraces the victors no less than the defeated—usually more.”
It surprised me to hear my grandfather speak this way. I had though him proud of his service and his general’s many victories. I had always yearned to ask him about his experiences; now I sought an explanation for his words. I wanted to hear about the battles in which he had fought, how he had become a hero, what he had done to be rewarded with a fine red house and rich flat land, why he was so respected by the proprietor of the inn and feared by its servants. But, when I looked at his rigid figure and stern face, my courage failed me.
“Look at these pines, Hsi-wei,” he said suddenly.
I looked. Before us was a stand of colossal trees, trunks thick as three men. Reaching higher than a pagoda with five eaves their tops dissolved in mist. The ground beneath them was soft with brown needles, punctuated with huge cones.
“A tree must battle its way through dirt and rock toward light. Even the meanest sapling has to be ambitious. The ones who fare best steal water and light from the less determined and driven. These tall pines are simply the most merciless. Notice how no other trees grow beneath them.”
“Is it the same in war, Grandfather?” I ventured to ask.
He took a step away from me. “It’s time to turn back, Hsi-wei,” he said. “Your mother will start worrying about you.”
It was my seventeenth winter. Grandfather had been losing weight all year long and now his skin hung sallow and loose on his bones. He no longer stood with legs wide apart, fists on hips, surveying the household like a commander reviewing a regiment. His face was contorted with pain, and he seemed to me full of anxiety. I could now easily lift his sword which, as a child, I had longed to wield. I could heft it, but he could not.
He lay on a couch by the window most of the day. I would sit with him for hours. He was the first to hear my earliest verses and, in his way, he encouraged me. “That’s not entirely terrible, Hsi-wei. Keep it up and you might yet aspire to starve in exile.”
He grew weaker daily. Mother took to speaking in hushed tones. Father took me aside and told me to prepare myself.
The winter deepened. Grandfather’s hands and feet were always cold.
One afternoon I came in from the shed and saw that he was shivering on his couch, even though the fire had been built up and the room was intolerably close. I pulled the thick blanket aside and lay down beside him. I took his icy hands in my own.
“Look,” he said. “Look at the snow, Hsi-wei.”
I raised my head to peer out the window. It was true; snowflakes had begun to fall and were coming down faster every second. The air was so still they plummeted, like silver coins.
“Os the snow covering up the sty, the midden?” breathed Grandfather.
“Yes,” I said, squeezing his hands more tightly in my desperation to put into them the warmth of my own.
“The snow will cover up the mud,” he mumbled weakly, “the privy, the manure.”
I could feel him dying. His eyes were closed and the face that for months had been so full of anguish and regret began to relax. “Snow is the sky’s purest offering, oblivion,” he whispered in my ear. His breath fell on my cheek as softly as a butterfly. “For at least a little while it will bury all that one has done wrong. It is beautiful, Hsi-wei, the snow. Beautiful. To forget everything. . . be forgotten.”
After he died we laid him out and all of us bowed to say our farewells. Only I dared to touch him. He was cold but his hair was warm. Even today I can feel the warmth of my grandfather’s hair.