Back and forth he paced across the temple’s wide courtyard. His ever present companions followed, their claws clicking a reassuringly regular rhythm that combined with the beat of his stick, drumming on the tiles to cast an unusual song across the still evening. The boy’s face showed the brooding nature of this self-chosen activity. Lost in his own thoughts he remembered the stir the day the other monks left. No one had told him what was happening; only that they would be back soon and that there was no reason to be concerned. Master Ekusa leaving the temple on a secret undertaking with the others and there was nothing to worry about!
Koji looked up at the trees on the edge of the forest, here from the courtyard only the peaks could be seen rising above the temple walls like a row of teeth framing the night’s sky. The dark image reflected his mood, frustrated at being unable to join the others to defend the Temple, what could have demanded such a mobilisation? He held onto the memory of Riku’s easy smile as he had told him that he had been chosen to stay back to defend the temple and the children. Riku’s conviction had placated him at the time but now with the memory fading he struggled to believe. Koji focused his mind on the sound of his own footsteps and those of his macaques. The refrain helped clear his mind and he fell into a calm and contemplative state drawing upon Master Ekusa’s teachings,
I must not fear that which I cannot change,
I must not try to change that which I cannot.
I must know courage cannot exist without fear,
By accepting my fears I can find true courage.
Above all I must have the courage to face the unknown.
He felt still as he came to terms with his feelings of disappointment at being treated like a child. With a sigh he turned on his bare heel and made for his own cell, the crisp night air had chilled his skin and raised pimples down his uncovered arms and chest. Long, jet black hair was formed into one long plait hanging down his back which swung in time with his stick as it rang out.
The loud almost hysterical hiss behind him shattered his new found peace. He wheeled, heart pounding, to see what had spooked his friends so. The macaques’ shackles were raised and they looked to the walls. He felt a wash of relief with just a tinge of disappointment as he realised there was nothing there. Slightly puzzled at his friend’s behaviour, he ran his fingers through their soft hair the touch having a relaxing effect. And then Kita the smallest of the four macaques was off, charging across the yard before scaling the wall with ease.
Ever since he had found his friends in the forest and weaned them back to health Kita had been the most impulsive and brave. They had been motherless and starving and he had feared for tiny Kita’s life more than the others combined, he remembered the day with pride that Kenko had commented that Kita was the bravest soul in the Temple “A tiger in monkey skin,” the comparison had bought a large and un-concealable smile to Koji’s face.
Koji ran after Kita, a deep almost parental concern igniting in his stomach. At the wall he leapt upon his stick running up it in the temple style, his anxiety made balancing difficult but the vantage from atop his stick showed him the cleared land between the Temple and the forest. From here he could make out Kita, bounding across the gap, just as a shuriken darted from the trees. Its flight slowed as he watched on, glinting brightly in the moonlight before embedding itself in Kita. Time returned to normal as he felt his entire stomach try to leave his body through his mouth, he wobbled and fell to the floor, head hitting the hard stone, bright lights flashed in his eyes. On the floor Koji felt his stomach empty, as rapidly as his heart had.
Temple training pulled him alert as the soft pad of mitted feet landed gently on the ground beyond him. He rolled to a crouch and found himself face to face with Kita’s assailant. The eyes visible to him ingrained themselves in his permanent memory and he swore to himself a silent vow that he would never forget them. He uttered one whispered, heartfelt word at his foe ‘Ninja’. An almost nonchalant shrug from the intruder threw the quintet into action, the young monk and three remaining macaques circled, opening up angles for attack. The ninja whirled into action with devastating speed, pressing down on Koji, who barely batted away the attacks with his stick, as he became the sole focus he knew he had no chance to win this. Each attack became a little harder to defend, his stick getting a little heavier with each parry. And then the attack relented, ninja deftly swinging his attention to Maku the largest of the macaques. With two quick, seemingly simple, thrusts of his obi, Maku was down. A responsive kick halted Lita’s lunge, sending her sprawling into the outer wall, another stopped the third macaque in its tracks. The brief respite allowed Koji to pick his shot, he swung with power and precision feeling a satisfying crunch as the solid stick met bone, causing the obi to fly out of the ninja’s grip. To Koji’s surprise the ninja didn’t flinch, his body coiled like a spring and then sprung into a sharp flying elbow that found the mark in Koji’s collarbone. He flew back hitting the solid stone floor heavily for the second time this night.
Koji tried to stand but his arm gave way beneath him, he reached a slumped position on his other arm and watched his opponent approach. Past him he saw Lita, stirring slowly at the foot of the wall. He knew as well as his opponent that he was beaten, his thoughts were with Kita and the children of the Temple he had failed to defend, I must have the courage to face the unknown.
The ninja’s smooth stride stuttered then halted completely. A crash of stone against stone reverberated from behind Koji and out around the courtyard. The ninja flung a clay bomb against the floor, blinded Koji couldn’t make anything else out through the thick acrid smoke. A loud roar emerged as if from both sides of him. The sound a deepest rumble akin to mountains colliding together, was a sound Koji had never heard before.
As the smoke cleared he surveyed the cortyard, Lita and Goji had made their way to Maku and were tenderly licking at his wounds. Koji smiled as he realised they were safe and that’s when he saw them. The Shisa that had stood guard at the entrance to the temple for all his years were now stood beside him. He sat entranced by these living legends. The sight of statues come to life had momentarily made him forget about Kita, awe changing to fear in that instant of remembrance. He limped to his feet and cradling his arm he wearily made his way to Kita, the Shisa padded along behind him.
He found Kita where he had dropped, ugly shuriken jutting out from his little chest. He fell to his knees and tried to cry, but no sound escaped him, he silently tried to sob but no tears nor pain would leave him. His body convulsed as the anguish built within him without outlet. After what felt like an age he sat. And he remembered his brave little Kita, memories flooded him of what had been lost tonight. He laughed grimly as he remembered the first time the macaques had seen Aiko and her gorilla. Maku and Lita had both promptly ran up the nearest tree but not Kita. Kita had stood defiantly growling at the gorilla, much to the gorilla’s bemusement. A pang of pain caught Koji as he thought of how much fear Kita must have overcome to be so courageous, after all the baby macaque had already been on the brink of death and faced the greatest unknown when he had found him.
Koji strode purposefully with Kita cradled in his arm. As he entered the moonlit courtyard Kita’s siblings let out a keening that almost stripped Koji of his last ounce of strength. ‘I vow to you I will never forget the eyes of the ninja, I vow to you I will try to live my life with the bravery of Kita,’ promised Koji to his remaining macaques.
That night the monk called Koji, just a boy, finally found his tears as he fell to sleep to the funeral song of his macaques, mourning.