Welcome to TRB Lounge. Today, I’d like to welcome author Con Chapman for sharing an excerpt from his latest release Kimiko Chou, Girl Samurai.
About The Book
KIMIKO CHOU is a girl on a mission. Her mother and brother have been killed by robbers in 14th century Japan while her father, a samurai warrior, is off on an invasion of Korea.
Chou (“butterfly” in Japanese) narrowly escapes death by hiding while the robbers ransack her home, then—dressed as a boy in her brother’s clothes—she goes in quest of her father. Alone on the road, she takes up with Hyōgo Narutomi, a former samurai who has been dismissed by seven previous masters, and Moto Mori, his page.
The three of them—man, boy, and girl—make their way across Japan along with Piebald, an old horse with a curious spot on his coat that resembles a Fenghuang, the mythical bird that rules over all others in Asian mythology. Together this unlikely trio experience a series of adventures and narrow escapes until Chou and Mori—but not Narutomi—land in Korea. There, as a spy for the Koreans, Chou searches for her father-across enemy lines!
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My name is Kimiko Chou, and this is my story. I have set it down so that it will live after me, for other girls to read. They may find it hard to believe, but it is true.
My given name “Chou” means “empress child butterfly.” It was given to me at my oschichiya—naming ceremony. I was swathed in white, like a little cocoon, pure as I came into the world. Like every other aka-chan (“little red one,” loving term for a newborn baby), I wore only this color of godliness for seventeen days. From then on, I was clothed in the colors of the world, and not just the pure shade of ame, the lofty sacred world of the gods of heaven, the ama-tsu-kami.
It should not surprise you that I came to live as a samurai, for the way of the samurai is death, and I was born, so to speak, in death. When robbers invaded our home and attacked my mother and brother, I hid in the alcove—the tokonoma—that is found in the main room of a samurai’s dwelling, and in which is displayed a single beautiful object for contemplation. I held myself still and breathless while the robbers ransacked the house for money and weapons; they looked only for things of material value, and so didn’t notice me. I pulled my clothing over my head like a sea urchin in order to save myself.
How, you ask, is such conduct worthy of a samurai, if the samurai, faced with a choice between life and death, must choose the latter? Well, we all want to live, and we form our thoughts according to our will. But at that moment, I was not a samurai, and I had no master. I had no aim in life, other than to survive.
When the robbers departed, I was alone. My mother Hino and my brother Tadashige were both dead. My father—Kimiko Kiyotaka–was gone, part of a force that had invaded the kingdom of Koguryo (current-day Korea). I did not know when or if he would return. I was eleven years old.
I was fearful, and for good reason. The robbers could be seen moving from house to house, repeating their acts of thievery and violence. Tada and I had recently undergone the ceremony of genpuku, by which we had formally been recognized as adults. I was to prepare for marriage, he was to prepare for war. I received a mogi (a pleated skirt), he—a samurai helmet. If I became my twin brother, I would be able to defend myself from the assaults of the robbers, and I would not be an object of attraction to them. And so I donned the garb of the samurai at an age when most girls had just begun to play the coquette. I was close to Tada, as twins will be, and so I had absorbed much of what he had learned in his training to become a samurai. Now I would become him, and adopt his name.
There was nothing left of value in our home except food, and so I cooked some rice and made onigiri (rice balls). These I packed into Tada’s hakama (pants), and I set off on a quest to find my father, although I knew it might take many years. I saw myself in the eye of my mind having many adventures before we would be reunited. I would be a woman then—if I could find him before he died.
I took with me my mother’s weapons: Her naginata. This is a spear with a curved blade at the end. It was used by women in defending their homes when their samurai husbands were absent from the home. With its long shaft, it could be used to keep a male opponent at a distance, thus allowing a woman to fend off a man stronger than her. Next, her tanto, a dagger favored by women because of its short length and capacity for camouflage. When sheathed, it looked like a fan, and could concealed as an item of innocent adornment until needed. Finally, her kansashi, a hairpin that is a woman’s weapon of last resort. Six inches long, it innocently keeps her hair in place but can be pulled out to pierce an attacker’s chest or throat when he is on the point of overcoming her.
I started out on the road that led towards the sea. I wanted to go to the place where my father would land when he came back, and if that did not happen for some time, I wanted to find a way to go search for him, on a fishing boat or a bigger craft bound for Korea. I must have made a forlorn-looking sight. My brother’s kataginu (sleeveless jacket) hung loose about my shoulders with its exaggerated shoulders, and while I was tried to put on a brave face, my heart was empty—my mother and brother gone, my father far away. I was all alone in the world.
The road was a muddy path, the color of my mother’s clay cooking pots. On either side were bright green hedges of grass that gave way to rice paddies. I was headed in the direction of the Tsushina Strait, towards a sky that was full of rain coming up from the sea. It was tinged with grey and blue and pink, like the inside of an oyster’s shell. It was hard to be hopeful, but I tried to walk with a forceful stride, to show the world that I was determined.
After a while I heard the clip-clop of a horse coming up behind me. I did not turn to look, as I wanted to give the rider the sense that I wasn’t a young girl he could trifle with, I was a samurai on a mission.
As the horseman drew nearer, he called out to me in a curt manner. “You there!”
I turned my head slowly to the left, but did not stop walking. He must know that I would not stop for anyone. He called again—“You!”
I kept walking, but said “Yes?”
“Where are you going?”
He laughed. “And how will you get there?”
“I will hire a boat.”
“Never you mind.”
Upon hearing those bold words, he dug his heels in his horse’s side and rode in front of me, blocking my way.
“Are you a samurai?” he asked with a mocking smile.
“I am a samurai’s page.”
“And who is your master.”
I hesitated just a moment. “You would not know him, he lives far from here.”
“Then how did you come to be all by yourself?”
I was silent, out of words. I should have foreseen that I would be questioned, but I had not given thought to the story I would tell.
“Well?” the man asked. “Who are you, and what do you have to say for yourself?”
I fought down a lump in my throat, and spoke. “I am Kimiko Tadashige. My master is dead. I am on my way to seek my father, who is in Korea.”
The man rubbed his chin, sizing me up. A boy came up behind him, dressed much like me, but in shabbier garments. I guessed that he was a page to this samurai and, from the looks of his clothing, had been traveling with him for some time. Perhaps, I thought, the man on horseback was a ronin, a samurai without a lord.
“I am Hyōgo Narutomi,” he said with a fierce voice, as if he wanted to scare me and not just say his name. “This is my page, Moto Mori.”
The boy bowed slightly and looked me over. His eyes seemed to see a rival, or even an adversary, even though I was just a stranger walking along the same road.
“I could use another page,” Narutomi said with a tone of cold calculation, as if I were a fish in a market.
I did not know what to say. I would be out of food soon enough, and I wanted protection from robbers and others with malice towards me.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“The same place you are,” Narutomi replied calmly, as if that settled the matter.
I looked off to the horizon behind Mori to my left, and Narutomi ahead of me. There was no shelter, and no other road to be seen, all the way to the end of the world within my view. What choice did I have, other than to continue with my concocted story about where I came from, and where I was going?
“All right,” I said, without enthusiasm. “I will come with you.”
About The Author
Con Chapman is the author most recently of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award from Hot Club de France. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and a number of literary magazines. His young adult short story, “The Vanishing Twin,” appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Cicada.
Follow the author on Twitter @conchapman
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