A Dark Path

Shinji sat in the filth of the small and cramped cell. The walls, made of solid oak, bore the marks of many desperate but ultimately doomed men, their last works etched into the hard and reliable wood. As he sat in the dirt Shinji couldn’t help but think back at how his life had led him to be sitting, stooped in the darkness awaiting the end of his miserable and short life, only the shiny black cockroaches and lice that thrived in his ripped and rough kimono for company. How had it come to this?   

Shinji had not been born into a life of dishonour, he had chosen it for himself, he now realised that this prison, this cell he found himself confined too, was of his own making. He could blame not his mother or his father, not the monks who had raised him nor the Yoriki who had arrested him or even the Magistrate who had sentenced him. These were all people of honour, simply men and women serving the Prefecture, their honour were not something Shinji would or could ever achieve.

He had been born into a small but loving family of servants. His mother worked for one of the noble families of Eddo, his father a cook in the same house. During the Dragon War Shinji had lost his father and after the dust settled and a new order of court established Shinji’s mother found herself sold to a local Geisha house by the head of the family she had so loyally served. The samurai had been stripped of lands and wealth and had done so to raise enough money to flee the new regime of the Dragon, Takashi Hotori. Shinji didn’t hate the man, he had never met the man, he had simply sold an asset.

After that Shinji at the age of eight had known the streets and alleys of the port city of Eddo, his home. Thinking back, Shinji could not help but feel that those early years, before he realised or noticed the way the samurai, the artisans, even the Geisha looked upon him with disgust were possibly his happiest.

“Pity, is for fools” the voice broke the silence and until that moment Shinji thought himself alone. Quickly scanning the small cell for the source of the voice his eyes could just about make out the shape sitting in the corner. He had not noticed and had been in a daze since being sentenced by the magistrate he could have simply missed the man.

As he peered across the dank cell, willing his eyes to cut through the gloom, he could make out the ragged shape of the man, his head tilted down and a hood covering the top half of his face. His long and dark coloured kimono hid his body and legs and if he hadn’t spoken Shinji supposed he might not of noticed him at all.

“I pity no-one, can you not leave a condemned man to his thoughts,” replied Shinji to the stranger.

“It is one thing to lie to others, a darker and more foolish thing to lie to oneself, san,” came the slow, calm and considered response.  Shinji was slightly taken aback, first for the fact that he had just settled on spending his last night with his broken hopes, and second the way in which the man spoke to him. Being a thief and a sentenced criminal Shinji was not used to being spoken to in such a respectful and formal tone. It both pleased him, but at the same time alarm bells sounded in the dark depths of his mind. What did it matter; he would not be alive to converse with another and so pushed the uncomfortable feeling out of his mind.

“How can I have lied, I haven’t spoken a word, san” the formal address sounded foreign as it rolled uneasily from his lips. As no reply came from the stranger he almost spoke to apologise and retract his words, just as he was about to do so the stranger spoke.

“You are wrong, and you are weak,” the same cold and lifeless tone. “Even now you sit with your pity and your regret. You wonder why the Samurai, the Shugenju, the Geisha, the Artisans look down upon you?” As he said the final words a beam of moonlight fell upon the lower part of the strangers face, his teeth rotten and his gums black and swollen. Shinji was not a good looking man and had spent most of his life in the company of the lowest of society but even he could not help but grimace at the sight. “It is because you are Vermin, you live in the gutter, you feed in the gutter, how do you expect them to respect you when you accept their scorn so freely?” The stranger’s voice almost spat the words out and Shinji could feel himself shrinking back away from the stranger and his painfully accurate summation of Shenji.

The stranger slowly drew himself to his feet and as he did so Shenji felt a bitter cold start to spread through him as if his heart had been placed in a bucket of ice.

“The samurai think they are powerful and deserve respect because of their honour, this is a lie, the only true power is through fear.”

“All your life you have lived as vermin, hiding from the world in the shadows, scorned and spat at for being what you were born.”

“What if it had been different, what it was them who scurried from the sound of your approach, what if it was they who fear to look you in the eye?” As he spoke he seemed to drift closer until he towered over the enthralled Shinji.

Although by this point terrified, Shinji could not look away from the dark shadow that loomed over him. His voice cracked with fear and uncertainty.

“Please, torment me no longer, I beg you,” with this he threw himself at the shadows feet his face pushed into the dirt and grime that layered the cell floor. Showing the greatest respect to the frightening stranger, Shinji lay shaking with fear in a pool of his fresh urine.

“You are but a rat, but a rat has its uses,” with this a long skeletal hand extended from the folds of his kimono and touched the prostrate Shinji’s head.

His body started the shake and convulse, the room started to spin and it felt as if his skin was being stretched and drawn across his malnourished frame. His bones snapped and tore against what little muscle he had. The pain was excruciating, and then blackness, cold and inviting saved him from the torturous pain.

*****

“You fool, where is he?” The senior guard yelled at his subordinate, who had thrown himself prone at the discovery of the missing prisoner.

“Gama San,”

“He was there when I checked, chattering to himself like a mad man,” still face down to his superior.

More for effect than in an effort to find the lost prisoner Gama threw the rags that were scattered around the small cell around.

“Where please tell me is he hiding?” the rat rushing from the cell brushed his leg and caused him the startle.

*****

It was dark and he was warm.

It had all been a dream, he felt his face against the warm folds of cloth and his belly growled in demand of food.

Suddenly light was thrust upon him, he quickly put out his arms to stabilise himself. What he saw made his heart plummet and a lump to rise in his throat.

Where his arms should have been there were small clawed paws. Looking up the shouts of the giant above him set his flight response into action. Without thinking he was away, scurrying as fast as his new legs would carry him.