An Autumn Leaf
Moderator note: The original document with this story can be found here.
The leaves swirled in obscure, yet beautiful, patterns as they were guided by the wind. There were red, yellow, orange, and even brown leaves moving around in their graceful dance of whirling and tumbling. The wind played with them joyfully and slowly revealed a small boy limping on his right leg outside of a small one story house and sitting on the road’s curb watching the leaves dance in the wind as shouts came from inside the house he just walked out of. His leg had been injured a few weeks ago when he had accidentally tripped over a large tree root and broken his leg. Sighing, he looked down at the cobblestone road and traced his finger along several of the cracks in the imperfect street. Even though it was not perfect, it still served its purpose as being a way for people and their cattle to go to other locations. That’s what the boy wanted to do. Go far away from this world that harbored disarray and chaos at every turn. Be whisked away to a fantastic world that would make him eternally happy and not the everlasting feelings of frustration and hatred that this world brought with it.
But he knew it was impossible to go to such a fictional world when it didn’t exist. The boy’s name was Nobu, meaning “truth” in Japanese and he often was degraded because of his parent’s low financial income. Nobu’s father did not work, but instead gambled with several of the other men with the money that his mother worked for. His raven colored hair flew into his eyes whenever the wind blew and his tanned skin showed that he stayed outside most of the day. His only clothing was a handspun shirt, made of a type of rough fabric that felt very itchy, but repelled snakes and most other reptiles because of the smell of the natural fibers; and a pair of pants made of the same material.
He was shunned in school, whenever he decided to go, and he was ignored on the streets and he was even disregarded in shops. His life was rough and he was neglected often and abused by both his parents and others, like his teacher. Nobu shifted slightly, showing several bruises on the skin that had been hidden by his clothes. Sighing again, he stood up and started shuffling down the rough avenue, his eyes on his feet and particularly his right leg that was shot with pain whenever he put weight on it.
Nobu walked through the small neighborhoods and through several small alleys as he wound his way through town. Nobody acknowledged his presence as he limped past many windows of decorated shops and market stalls that sold several goods that were supposedly rare and exotic. People milled around, haggling with the shopkeepers for items that they needed. A man brushed past Nobu, his arms laden with goods bought from one particular stall. Vendors shouted at potential customers, yelling prices and item names. Nobu finally reached the pier and inhaled the crisp salt air that permeated through the wind from the ocean. Spotting a few kids about his age laughing at something in the water, he crept up to them, hiding behind several barrels that contained freshly caught fish. Moving through the lines of people waiting to buy fish and other necessities, he finally stood at the head of a jetty that stretched out far into the ocean. The jetty was supposedly once used when other merchant and cargo ships came to the port, but that was in the past and now it was falling apart as the waves of the ocean slowly destroyed the piece of history. Upon seeing the other kids, he spotted something in the water that was struggling to get air and to stay above water.
It was a stray dog with skin so taut over its skeleton that Nobu could see its ribs and how hungry it was. Its eyes were sunken and pleading as it struggled against the power of the tide and the sharp sticks that the boys were poking it with. The dog’s tail was whipping fiercely to propel itself to land, but was unsuccessful as again and again the dog was submerged under the teasing water of the ocean.
The boys were dressed in colorful clothes, their hands containing no calluses and their face showing no sign of malnutrition. Their black hair was longer than Nobu’s, a sure sign of family wealth. They laughed without a care in the world as they poked the dog, their faces wrought with an almost frightful glee. Their laughter was maniacal to Nobu and he cupped his hands over his ears trying to get rid of the cacophonous laughter that chilled him to the bones. Seeing the dog go under for longer than before, Nobu slowly walked over to the boys, trying to disguise the fact that he despised them. A rap on the dog’s head sent it whining and back under the waves.
Nobu, unable to control himself by seeing the hideous sight of the boys hurting the dog and drowning it, sprinted down the jetty, ignoring the pain in his leg, and in one swift motion knocked down one of the kids into the water on the other side of the jetty. The other boys looked up and began to beat him with their sticks, lashing out at him with all their strength until Nobu fell and was a bloody mess. The boy’s sticks broke and they began to lose interest in the whimpering boy who had disrupted their game. Striding down the jetty, the kids jeered at the crying Nobu, now covered with scratches and other wounds.
The boys began to walk away and into the throng of people buying goods from different vendors, when one of the kids noticed Nobu reaching into the water and trying to pull the dog out. After talking with each other, the grinning boys ran back down the jetty and before Nobu could do anything, kicked him into the water alongside the dog. The boys snickered as Nobu flailed in the water, unable to swim or stay above the water as the cruel waves pushed him down underwater. Nobu thought rapidly on how to get out of the ocean when a particularly powerful wave knocked him down and filled his mouth with the bitter taste of salt water. Nobu sank into the water, and unable to kick back up to the surface, began to lose consciousness…
* * *
Nobu awoke suddenly, and instead of breathing in salt air, inhaled air that was covered with a scent of pine and other different scents of trees and plants. He sat up quickly and inspected his surroundings. A crude mud hut was erected on one side of the small clearing and a smoldering fire was placed in the center of the glade.
“I see you’re finally awake,” said a figure that was emerging into the clearing with a bunch of logs under each arm. After carefully arranging the logs in the fire and lighting it with a tinderbox, the man sat down across from Nobu on the hard ground that was dotted with small rocks. Unsure of whom this man was, Nobu just shivered and looked into the depths of the newly lit fire.
The flames licked up the logs greedily, burning them upon touch and turning them slowly into ashes. Mesmerized by the fire, Nobu’s eyes slid out of focus as he admired the perpetual motion of the small blaze.
“Did you know that the two things that make humans so fascinated, that they can sit there forever, are fire and a running stream of water?” the stranger spoke again after a long silence. Nobu, unsure of how to respond to this, inched closer to the fire to try and dry off his damp clothes. After a few more moments in silence, Nobu turned around and faced the strange man and noticed how penniless he looked. His face was clean shaven, but looked rather rough with the set of scars on both his right cheek and chin. His clothes were made of cotton and were obviously done by someone who had no idea what they were doing. The stranger smiled and seemed rather content with his life even though he was possibly poorer than Nobu.
“So kid, what were you doing in the ocean with your dog?” asked the man kindly once Nobu was finished examining him.
Nobu’s eyes filled with tears as he looked at his arms and felt his face that was now caked with dry blood. He remembered the dog’s helplessness and suddenly felt a surge of hatred toward the kids who had beaten both him and the dog. Struggling to recompose himself, Nobu finally told the stranger what had happened and what he had seen. The man sat silently and listened with a hardened expression on his face that revealed no emotion about the story.
“I was too weak to fight against the ocean… and too weak to save the dog… did it die?” finished Nobu, tears now streaming down his face as he looked down at the ground, avoiding the eyes of the stranger.
The man nodded solemnly. “Well, you know what? You must have really hated impurity and evil or really loved justice. If you love something, protect it with everything you have, even if it costs you your life.” Nobu looked up at the strange man who now wore a small grin on his scarred face. How could someone risk their life for something that they loved? Why would someone do that, except if they’re crazy? Who has the willpower to risk their life for something, or somebody, else?
Nobu now looked at the man and felt admiration swelling in his chest. This was obviously a man of poverty, but of great integrity and honesty.
“By the way, my name’s Isamu, what’s your name again?” asked Isamu politely.
“My name’s Nobu…” hesitantly replied Nobu.
“Nice to meet you, Nobu,” Isamu said, “why were you at the pier by yourself and not with your parents or friends?”
“My… my parents don’t realize my existence…. And I have no friends…” replied Nobu hesitantly as he realized the truth in his own words. Ashamed, he looked down at a line of ants carrying what appeared to be a dead spider to their home. He would always be an outcast and not part of that line, no matter how hard he tried or what he did.
“Well then, it looks like you just got your first friend,” said Isamu as he stood up and began to walk towards the mud hut nearby. “You can stay here for the night and then go back home in the morning if you like,” suggested Isamu as he paused before the entrance to the dingy hut. Smiling, Nobu looked at the sky and realized that the day was already spent by talking with Isamu. Gathering a bunch of sticks and carrying them under his arm, he tied the sticks with a piece of string that he found near the hut and put the bundle on the ground near the now extinguished fire. Lying down with his head on the sticks, Nobu looked up at the starlit sky and wondered if anyone else was doing the same as his mind slowly drifted towards the infinite kingdom of sleep…
A boy looks up and stares into the face of a hideous beast and cringes at the sight of the twisted creature. Through feral instinct, the being grabs the boy and slowly drains the life out of him. Only then does the boy realize the importance of his life…
Nobu felt the heat of the sun on his face and opened his eyes, and instead of seeing a mud and wood ceiling, he looked up at a canopy of trees. Sitting up, he saw Isamu watching him while eating bread and throwing more sticks into the fire that was no longer smoldering embers, but a new blaze that would go on forever, unless dampened or starved. Isamu offered some bread silently and Nobu gratefully ripped off a piece as he felt hunger set in as he remembered he had not eaten for a while. After the two of them finished eating their breakfasts in silence, Isamu stood up and asked: “Nobu, do you think you could help me get a few more logs for the fire?”
“Why do you need a fire when it’s not even dark yet and you’re not cooking anything?” quickly inquired Nobu.
“The fire helps scare off wild animals and other creatures that may come into this clearing. So, do you want to go with me to find firewood?”
Nobu nodded and the two of them set off into a small stretch of forest with trees so high that they obscured the sky above. His leg was shot with pain as he stepped through the small wood and had to rest frequently to get over the pain. Nobu first began looking for small sticks, but found none that he could carry by himself. After an hour of fruitless searches, he began walking back and found Isamu grinning, but without any sticks or anything that could fuel the fire.
“Why are you grinning when you’ve found nothing?” asked Nobu, now frustrated by the time they had wasted in the forest looking for firewood.
“I really do believe I can accomplish a great deal with a big grin, I know some people find that disconcerting, but that doesn't matter,” replied Isamu as they continued their search. After a few more hours spent in the wood, they returned to the clearing and threw the few sticks they had found into the fire. The fire crackled as it quickly licked up the wood in its multi-colored flares.
“Do you want to go to town with me?” asked Isamu as they stood there gazing at the feasting blaze. “You can go back to your home after we’re done there.”
“Sure, I’ll go,” Nobu answered and the two of them set off towards the town. Nobu, however, sometimes needed to lean on Isamu as they walked because of his injured leg. As they walked, Nobu almost wished he hadn’t come because of the pain he was enduring in his leg. They followed the main path towards the town, but when they had walked along the road for a few minutes, they came to a man cursing at his sideways cart.
“Do you need any help?” shouted Isamu as they neared the man. The cart was made of wood and had several knots in it and was obviously made by an inept carpenter. It was a man driven cart and several bags of rice had fallen out when it had tipped over. One wheel had fallen off and one axle underneath the cart had snapped in two, Nobu noticed as they neared the damaged cart. The man wore simple clothes and a hat made of straw on his head. His black mustache was untidy and his eyes a deep and solemn brown that seemed to be swallowing holes.
“Yes, I could do with some help,” replied the man. “My cart fell over when I was trying to bring my shipment of rice to town from my collection of paddies. Could you help me by fitting the wheel back on?”
“Of course,” Isamu said after inspecting the damage. “Nobu, could you get a sturdy stick and bring it over here?” Nobu nodded and found a thick stick shortly thereafter. Handing the stick to him, Nobu watched as Isamu pulled a small roll of string from his pocket and tied the stick to what remained of the axle. Fitting the wheel back on, Isamu and the farmer pushed the cart back to its correct position and with Nobu’s help, they carried the heavy bags of rice back onto the cart.
“Thank you. You just saved me a few long hours of fixing it myself,” thanked the man as he pulled out a few dirty coins. Handing them to Isamu, the man longingly gazed at what was obviously the last of his money.
“We can’t accept this,” said Isamu as he pushed the man’s hand away. “I won’t accept payment for something like this. I’m sure anyone would have helped you.”
“Thank you again,” said the farmer as he gratefully put the coins away and grasped his cart’s handles. “So long, and may we cross paths again,” called the man to them from over his shoulder as he began running in the direction of the town while pulling the heavy cart behind him.
The two of them walked in silence for a few minutes until Nobu asked through his gritted teeth from the pain, “How could you refuse payment when you’re so poor? And why did you stop to help that man?”
Sighing, Isamu replied, “To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else; that is what happened to me, but I didn’t take the money because the man was also poor, and I don’t accept money, only the feeling that I did something right today. And to answer your other question, most people rust out due to lack of challenge. Few people rust out due to overuse. I saw that as a challenge.” The two of them walked on and they finally could smell the scent of salt water in the distance as they saw the clusters of buildings. They walked on without coincidence and they finally reached the town’s entrance where a few stalls were set up, selling everything from jewelry to paper.
The two of them entered the town and walked through the market place, looking at the goods the vendors were selling. There were also several peddlers attempting to persuade a group of women that the jewelry they were selling was of the best quality. Several other people were selling rice and vegetables which were grown from their own fields. Nobu instinctively turned right at a small intersection towards his house, but Isamu stopped him with a firm hand. In front of them was the same group of boys that had beaten the dog and they were now picking on a group of homeless men.
“Wait here,” whispered Isamu to Nobu as he continued to walk towards the boys. “Go away, dirty kids!” he yelled as he stepped in front of the boys and the vagabonds. Nobu had never seen Isamu angry, and now that he was, Nobu suddenly felt frightened because an aura of power and fearlessness seemed to surround him. Nobu admired Isamu’s courage as the boys scattered in all directions, trying to get away from him. Isamu helped several of the poor men up back onto their feet and many of them thanked him for his timely interruption.
After Isamu made sure the men were okay and that the boys were far away, the two of them walked through town again and surveyed the multiple goods that were displayed in shops and stalls. Isamu especially looked at several little trinkets like a small turtle made of a light green colored rock. Nobu then noticed that a throng of people was growing at the entrance to the town and walked over to Isamu and mentioned it to him.
“Let’s go check it out, but don’t get separated from me,” cautiously directed Isamu as they walked casually toward the entrance to see what all the commotion was about. They reached the entrance and pushed through the crowd to see what was going on. The site that lay before them made Nobu gasp and Isamu’s grip to tighten on his shoulder.
Before them stood a short man probably around the age of sixty with two taller and younger men standing behind him, each with drawn swords that they held in their hands. The one to the left of the short man wore a standard sky blue silk kimono, showing that he lived in luxury, or his boss did. The man’s hair was black and his was skin pale under a wide brimmed hat that hid his face. The man on the right was taller and also wore a kimono which was dyed a deep crimson. His hair was also black, and his skin was darker than the other two men near him.
The man in the center though was somewhat of an oddity to the rest of the people Nobu had seen. He wore a suit that was supposedly common in the west, but was hardly ever seen here in the Far East. The man’s hair was slicked back unnaturally and it was streaked with white and gray. He was shorter than even Nobu, but he had a sense of power and money, both things that Nobu never had, which made him seem so much taller.
The two guards had their swords drawn and were making a peddler pay some kind of tribute for viewing their boss. The peddler refused and the swordsmen stepped forward, the blades of their swords shining in what remained of the sunlight. The short man motioned to his guards to stop, and they immediately stopped bullying the peddler and sheathed their swords.
“Good thing our boss was kind to you this time,” said one of the guards as they kicked the fallen form of the merchant.
From the crowd emerged one of the boys who Nobu recognized as the ringleader of the small group that had mocked the beggars before. The boy approached the man confidently and the two guards unlocked their swords with their left thumbs, hoping to scare away the boy. But the kid kept walking and stopped in front of the man and came closer. The guards looked like they were ready to spill blood, but to all the people’s amazement, the man let the kid come near. The boy whispered in the man’s ear and pointed at Isamu once and then began whispering again.
The man’s expression was nothing Nobu had ever seen. He had seen anger before when his alcoholic of a father drank too much, but this was pure fury that even the guards seemed scared of. Isamu’s grip on Nobu’s shoulder tightened and Nobu felt ready to scream out loud in pain, but he bit back his tongue as he saw the short man motion to his guards. They discussed while the people held their breath and the man constantly pointed at Isamu and the guard’s swords.
The guards finally moved away from their boss and silently pulled Isamu from the crowd. Isamu did not struggle, but let them carry him away much to the jeers of the other boys and the gasps of the crowd.
“You see this man?” spoke the short man with an air of authority. “He is a traitor and a blackmailer. He is also a liar and has tried to stop the progress this town is making. This man spilled secrets of the government to foreigners and blackmailed these kids,” he motioned to the group of boys, “and told them to make fun of the many vagabonds that line this street. He stole from the peddlers and storeowners and he…”
Nobu couldn’t take anymore of the lies that dribbled out of the man’s mouth. Isamu, a traitor and a blackmailer? Isamu, a liar? Isamu stood still as the man listed charges of the most outrageous kind from murdering an elderly woman to writing books about “magic.” But the thing that scared Nobu the most was that the crowd was actually listening to him and was absorbing the lies that the man told. Even the farmer they had helped on the way here was listening in on what the man was saying and shouted with the crowd about how Isamu was an evil man.
A man poked Nobu in the shoulder and asked “Are you okay?” Nobu nodded and then looked around and noticed that Isamu, the man and his guards were gone and that the crowd was slowly dispersing. Who was that guy? The question kept popping up in Nobu’s head as he wandered around the town, walking to no particular place. The short man must have been a man of great importance because otherwise the townspeople would not have listened or been frightened. Was he someone from the High Government that had come to arrest Isamu? Or maybe he was the representative of the province and had been told to collect taxes, but then Isamu’s case had interrupted his work.
Nobu walked out of town and then noticed that it was already becoming dark and he didn’t know the exact location of the glade where Isamu’s mud hut was built. He walked back instinctively to his house and wondered if anyone was inside. Opening the unlocked door, he saw that his father was out, probably drinking and gambling with what little money he had, but his mother sat at a table praying. Not wanting to interrupt a prayer, Nobu silently closed the door and walked back down the street. Where could he go? He couldn’t go back to Isamu’s hut because he didn’t know where it was and he couldn’t go home because his mother probably wouldn’t even recognize him.
An idea suddenly sprang into Nobu’s mind and he found his feet taking him to his great aunt’s house whom he had seen only occasionally. Knocking on the door, he was greeted by his aunt and was ushered to the spare room upstairs after he told her that he had gotten lost in town. Nobu walked up the stairs and found the room near the back of the building. Lying down on the straw mattress that was meagerly covered with a few sheets and a small, hard pillow, Nobu looked up at the plaster ceiling. He thought about the events that had occurred and what Isamu might have to endure because of the crimes he had theoretically committed. Would he be tortured until the short man was satisfied? Or would he be put to death? The last thought scared Nobu so he tried not to think about it, but it was still a possibility that lingered in his mind as he lost himself into the vast kingdom of dreams once again…
The boy looked up and saw the beast once again, but this time instead of grabbing him, it transformed into Isamu. A perfectly healthy and smiling Isamu with his scarred face and kind expression. “Protect it with both arms,” grinned Isamu. The image of Isamu then shifted and became the short man in the suit, waving a sword in one hand and holding a long piece of paper in the other. “You shall be put to death because of your crimes,” growled the short man. “Now that you don’t have any arms or legs, you can’t protect anything. Not even yourself…”
Nobu awoke as he heard the loud reverberating clang of a gong in the distance. He jumped off the bed and ran through the building, powered by the image he had seen out his window. Pushing open the doors of the house, Nobu gasped and started to cry as he looked at the scene that was laid out before him. Isamu was tied to a thick and long wooden pole with his arms and legs having been cut off, mere stubs taking their place and leaving blood to soak through his shirt. He had obviously been beaten from the marks on his chest.
A large metal gate had been set up between the spectators and the group of people inside the gate. The short man, his two guards and Isamu were all imprisoned in the gate with only a locked and bolted metal door to get in and out. The short man stood with his air of dignity and authority and waited for the crowd to come as one of the guards hit the gong over and over again. People walked out of the inn and their houses and nobody spoke as they realized what was happening.
The short man signaled to his guard to stop ringing the gong and pulled out a long sheet of paper that had the charges written on it. The short man began accusing Isamu of all the charges he had accused him of yesterday. But at the end, he read the punishment in a loud and confident voice while smirking. “Because of this man’s illegal and rebellious actions, his punishment is thus,” the short man smiled wickedly as he paused. “Death.” He spoke the word with such force and authority that Nobu thought that maybe if he said the word again, everybody around him would fall down dead.
The people were silent as they looked at the short man and then at Isamu as they slowly soaked up the meaning of the words. One of them yelled, “You can’t do that! That’s unjust! Isamu has never done anything of this sort! You should be jailed for even thinking he committed these crimes, Kitsune!” Then everything clicked in Nobu’s head. This man was Kitsune, the famous general and political leader who had risen to power just a few years ago using underhanded tactics and gaining support from the criminal underground. Nobu had seen a poster of him approximately two years ago, but back then he had seemed so much younger…
Kitsune just smiled his evil smile and said to the man who had spoken out, “Would you like to die here too?” The man stood his ground and replied, “You know that those aren’t true, but only imaginary crimes you thought up so that you could be amused. You’re sickening!” The two guards unlocked their swords and one of them unbolted the metal door. The other guard moved into the crowd without resistance and grabbed the struggling man. Dragging him into the fenced off area, the guard unsheathed his sword from it’s wooden scabard and with one smooth motion, beheaded the man. A few people in the crowd screamed before the head hit the ground and a few fainted, but were caught by other members in the pack behind them.
That’s what’s going to happen to Isamu… thought Nobu as he looked back at his friend who hung there helpless. Nobu then thought of the two days they had spent together and knew that Isamu had taught him some very important lessons.
“If you love something, protect it with everything you have, even if it costs you your life…” whispered the first memory of Isamu in Nobu’s head. Protect it even if it costs you your life… Nobu then screamed out, unable to hold back the emotion that swelled up inside of him. “Isamu!” he screamed.
“Nobu,” whispered Isamu half-conscious as the guards turned to him next. One of the guards raised his sword and with one swift motion, another life was ended. Another person had been killed, right before the last autumn leaf had fallen to the ground…