Dragon Sword

A blind swordswoman in China seeks revenge on the cunning and deadly Manchu general who killed her parents.


35. the devil's sword



It's night.




Zu now begins to speak. She speaks in almost a toneless voice. Almost. Edward listens, cradling his injured sword arm --- the one with the deepest wound, wrapped in a bandana, it tingles and smarts whenever he moves it. Maybe that means it's already healing. He wonders, the Blue Eyed Devil does, if he will feel this keen suffering for the rest of his life.




So then, fine. Right. It doesn't matter.  "Life is brief; play 'ere we die."






Zu is speaking as if to the darkness. The mute boy stirs in his sleep and draws his feet closer to his head. But he doesn't wake.




Everything was gone that afternoon, Zu says. Everything.




She covered the improvised burial mound with dead leaves, lichens, sticks, stones -- anything that came to hand. She even placed his cooking pot on the grave, his incense dishes.




Then she knelt and said a buddhist sutra. Droning: Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form.




It was getting dark. She realized that she was prolonging the moment, that she didn't want to rise to her feet and go. Walking down from this mountain, out of the cold forest now seething with fog.




It is autumn forever there now, she says.






Then she is silent for even longer than the last time.






Nothing existed for me anywhere in the world, Zu murmurs, licking her upper lip as if to taste blood. I was nothing. A little girl when the hermit found me, I'd learned all the exquisite and deadly sword techniques of the legendary Dragon Sword Cult from its last living member, as I'd learned to recite sutras -- so what? No one else but the hermit had even seen me since then. Maybe I was really just a ghost. As was he.




But then I remembered -- the Manchu, the bearded Manchu general who trampled me, who cut my father into pieces and left him to be devoured by dogs and crows, who threw my mother over his saddle, still in her wedding silks, and rode off with her laughing like a demon -- oh yes, he still existed, and as long as he existed didn't I have my reason for living?






I decided to hunt this man down, to torture him to death, to kill him -- I thought I might even eat his flesh. Maybe I'd rape him with a stick of wood first. Maybe I'd bury him to his neck in sand in an anthill. Maybe --




But could I, a blind woman, kill such a strong swordsman?






As I wandered through all the regions of China, I noticed that the meanings of words often changed from one village to the next.




I walked through deserts and forests over mountains and even for a very long along the shore of the great sea, feeling the spray wet my face and hair and soak through my clothes until I shuddered, and at night I'd stop and build a little fire and play the flute, a length of bamboo I'd cut and carved myself in the high mountains. I was still learning.






Sometimes brothels hired me for a few coins to play through the nights and  into the dawns as only a blind woman can play, it is said -- keenly and erotically and with utter forlornness.  So doing, I paid for my food.






I went by trading ship to the islands of Japan. I spent five years there, about half that time learning from a master how to forge swords.




I learned very little Japanese, since I lived mostly in the mountains, and the sword-forger demanded total silence for his work.




I lived in caves, then in an abandoned temple, and everywhere I went I sought out warriors who could teach me what I didn't know about sword fighting, just in case there were any points the old man hadn't covered.




But in fact he'd taught me everything I needed to know. I was never defeated in any duel, not even scratched, but nonetheless I wanted to go on polishing my killing technique, and how better to do that than by fighting one warrior after another in a country renowned for making war?




Because of my blind lunar eyes, my wild hair, my tattered clothes, my frayed straw sandals -- the Japanese peasants ran terrified from me, thinking I was a demon, a ghost, or a fox spirit, and Buddhist priests often tried to drive me off by chanting spells in Sanskrit.








The oil-and-wick flame smokes and flickers and the shadows move.








Maybe Zu doesn't speak.




Maybe she doesn't tell Edward Savage about wandering Japan.




Or forging swords in a cave on a mountain.




Maybe she says nothing, but listens all night to Dragon Gate. And the desert wastes beyond.




Seeing with her ears.




Edward falls asleep, his wounds still aching, and dreams clearly that he is in Japan. He is on the porch of a mountain temple watching the rain fall in straight lines like ink and there is someone near him but when he turns to her he cannot see her face. Then he sees -- she is not a person at all, but an animal, a fox with a lean intelligent face and dark shining eyes. He even smells her wet fur. He lets out a cry and wakes up sweating and he smells dust and rotten fruit, charcoal and cinnamon and jasmine, seared dog meat and all the other wafting odors of China. He's in Dragon Gate. It's dawn.






Once in Japan though she did not tell Edward as much, or at least not that night, Zu tracked down a renowned master of the Senshin Katori Ryu school of swordsmanship (kenjitsu, battojitsu), a man who now lived a semi-retired life as a noodle shop proprietor in a crowded section of Osaka. Boldly introducing herself, she asked him to observe her technique, to see if he could detect any flaws in it, the sword-drawing (iaido), and he grunted yes, he would and closed the shutters to his shop and in the thick steaming smell of garlic and chicken broth Zu knelt on the earthen floor as the Sensei, standing nearby in his blue apron, watched -- his eyes alive, his wide nostrils flared. Alert. Calm but ready. Zu holding the bamboo sword cane gently in both hands then just at the deepest moment of stillness drawing out the Dragon Blade in a flash and cutting the flaming wick from a candle -- holding out the flame for the master to see as it flickered out, the flame eating the last of the wick and turning to darkness and smoke. Then Zu flicked away the smoking wick and resheathed the sword and placed it on the dirt beside her and sat back on her bare heels, face shining with sweat in the erratic glow of the charcoal fire, awaiting a verdict. The Sensei merely smiled (Zu could hear that deep-suffusing smile in his voice) and said in a warm emphatic tone: Well done. Have a bowl of noodles.




Where is your sword, Sensei? Zu asked him in a much-softened voice once she had finished her noodles and drained the last fiery drops of broth left in the bowl. Was it lost? Stolen? Did you sell it to buy this noodle shop?




The Sensei laughed. My sword? It's here. It's the air. It's the fire. It's the scent of the broth in your nostrils and the udon in your stomach. It's your hair and skin and lunar eyes. It's the blue curtain hanging over the door. It's the sky and the earth, the mountains and rivers. It's my head with all its silly distracted and vain thoughts of a whole lifetime. It's my wife asleep under the patched quilt in the upstairs room. It's everything. It's the Universe. And I weild that sword like a devil. Can you draw yours out faster?




Zu bowed. She was unable to speak. She bowed.


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