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Atsushi Nakajima

Legend of the Master

Japanese Books and Short Stories in English, Maplopo
Atsushi Nakajima in English (Legend of the Master

Atsushi Nakajima,
Legend of the Master

中島敦作,

名人伝

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A man named Kisho who lived in Handan, the capital city of Zhao, committed himself to being the most accomplished archer in all the world. In search of a teacher, he looked far and wide, eventually learning of a master archer named Hiei who was without peer. It had been remarked that at a distance of one hundred steps, Hiei could launch one hundred arrows at one hundred dancing leaves on a willow tree and fell every single one. So, Kisho traveled the long distance to Master Hiei and became his pupil.

Hiei’s initial instruction to his new pupil was: learn not to blink. Kisho returned home, burrowed beneath his wife’s loom, and lay on the floor. His intent was to fight the urge to blink as the maneki, the loom’s frame, hurriedly jumped up and down within a whisker of his eyes. His wife, who did not know the reason for this behavior, was more than a little bewildered and embarrassed by him seeing her at such an unflattering angle. She issued a mild protest, but Kisho scolded her and made her continue along with her weaving. Day after day in this bizarre manner under the loom, he honed his discipline. Two years passed. Even if the loom’s busily moving maneki brushed his eyelashes, Kisho never blinked again. Finally, he could end his stay beneath the loom. His skill was now so refined that should someone thrust an awl at his open eye, he would not blink. Should the rising ash from a fire actually fly into his eyes, he would not blink. Should the steaming smoke from an extinguished hibatchi pour upward toward his face, he would not blink. His eyelids had forgotten entirely how to employ their musculature for blinkingso much so that even while Kisho was deep in sleep, they would remain wide open and alert. In the culmination of this effort, a small spider was able to weave a web between his eyelashes, giving him the final bit of confidence he needed to inform the master of his progress.

Upon hearing the news, Hiei said, “Learning not to blink is not yet enough for me to teach you archery. Next, you need to learn to see. When you have matured in your practice of seeing, you will see small as big and infinitesimal as colossal. Once you are capable of this, report back to me.”

He returned home again, sought a louse in the seam of his garments and found one. He promptly tied a knot around its body with a strand of his hair and hung it from a south-facing window. All day long, he stared at the louse. Each and every day, he continued to stare at the louse that hung in front of the window. At first, it was nothing more than a louse. Even a few days later, it was still just a louse. With the passing of ten days, however, the louse appeared to be a bit larger than it once was. Three months later, it was clearly the size of a silkworm. The backdrop of the window from which the louse hung gradually changed. The mellow sun of spring transitioned to the intense sun of summer. The clear sky of autumn filled with flocks of geese. Soon, sleet would be falling in the cold grey sky. Kisho maintained a perseverant gaze on the tiny arthropod connected to the tip of his hair. The next three years slipped by quickly, and during that time, he went through twenty to thirty lice. One day, he suddenly realized the size of the louse had grown to be the size of a horse. “I’ve got it!” exclaimed he, slapping his hand on his knee. He went outside and could hardly believe his eyes. People were the size of tall buildings, horses were mountains, pigs were hills, and chickens were castle towers. Barely able to contain his excitement, he returned home. He faced the louse dangling from the window, extracted a mugwort-crafted arrow, leveled it on his Yan-crafted animal-horned bow, drew back the string, and released the arrow. A direct hit—straight through the heart of the louse, and on top of that, the strand of hair remained.

Kisho ran hurriedly to the master and recounted his success. Equally excited, Hiei pounded his chest with fervor and said, “Well done!” offering Kisho his first measure of congratulations to date. Immediately thereafter, Hiei left no stone unturned in imparting his esoteric secrets of archery to Kisho.

Kisho’s five long years of foundational eye training had paid off handsomely. His improvement had outpaced all expectations.

Then, ten days after absorbing Hiei’s esoteric secrets, Kisho decided to test his newfound skills on the willow tree. One hundred paces. One hundred leaves. One hundred arrows. Each arrow hit its target. Twenty days later, Kisho drew back the strong string of the bow, a cup of water filled to the brim resting on his right elbow. He still scored leaves with great accuracy, and even more remarkably, the water in the cup remained placid. A month later, he took another hundred arrows and in rapid succession, began firing. The first darted from his bow and locked squarely to the center of the target. The path of the second was so precise it pierced and impaled the tail of the first. A split-second later, the third firmly lodged itself deep within the shaft of the second. Because each successive arrow pierced the arrowhead of its precedent without a single miss, they remained stuck within the target. In the blink of an eye, one hundred arrows melded together to form a straight shafttaking on the appearance of a single arrow looking as though it was being embraced by the string of a bow. Watching the situation unfold nearby, Master Hiei spontaneously shouted, “Excellent!”

Two months later, when he returned home, Kisho unexpectedly found himself in an argument with his wife. In an attempt to threaten her, he fit a QiWey sourced arrow to the string of the legendary Ugo bow, drew it taught and launched it in the direction of her eyes. The arrow scissored three eyelashes from their perch and continued to fly far past his wife at great speed. Oblivious, she continued with her scolding, offering not a blink. That arrow, with its tremendous speed and sublime accuracy was now at a level unmatched, and it was the sole result of Kisho’s achieved excellence in archery.

With not a lesson left to absorb from his master, one day, Kisho suddenly had an evil thought.

In those moments alone, he began to consider the reality that any rival he might possess at this point would be none other than Master Hiei himself, and that to become the number one master in the world, he would need to get rid of Hiei at all costs. So, he convened with himself, secretly plotting an attack. One day, he happened upon the master walking alone toward him in the wilderness. Immediately, Kisho decided to act. He pulled an arrow from his quiver and aimed. Hiei, who sensed the presence of another at just that moment, drew an arrow of his own. A volley ensued with each man firing in rapid unison. Each of their arrows connected at the center of the airspace between them and fell remarkably together in pairs. In an act that could only be attributable to their possession of near god-like skills, not a single spec of dirt was disturbed as the arrows hit the ground. Kisho, however, had an advantage. One remaining arrow to Hiei’s none. “I’ve got him,” murmured he, enthusiastically letting that final arrow fly. Hiei instinctively broke off a branch from the wild rose shrub next to him, clasped his hand tightly around the thorn- encrusted end and wielded it, striking the head off the now perilously near arrow. In the end, Kisho realized he would never meet his ambition, and a swell of moral shame suddenly overtook himone that would have never occurred had he succeeded. Feeling relieved that he escaped danger, and satisfied it was his own skill that saved him, Hiei was able to completely dismiss any hatred for his enemy. The two ran toward each other, met in the middle of the field and embraced. Their tears of affection for one another as teacher and pupil streamed until they could no longer see through their tears. (Now, it is not fair to use today’s moral sense to judge an action such as this. Back then, top chef, Ekiga, roasted and served his own son for his lord, gourmand Duke Huan of the Qi dynasty, who sought a delicacy he had never tasted. And, sixteen-year old Qin Shi Huangdi, future emperor of the Qin dynasty, the first unified Chinese empire, raped his father’s favorite concubine three times on the same night his father died. Each of these stories are from the same time period).

Despite being consumed by tears and in a tight embrace, Hiei knew it would be dangerous if he allowed his pupil to incubate a similar scheme in the future, so he thought it best to give Kisho a new goal to redirect any latent intent he might possess. Hiei told this dangerous pupil, “I have already passed on everything that should be taught. If you wish to achieve the deepest of mastery, go west. Claw your way up the rugged mountain of Kakuzan until you reach its summit. There, you will find the master named Kanyo that no one, dead or alive, can match. Compared to the skills of that old master, our archery is nothing more than child’s play. There is nobody you should entrust your mastery to now other than Master Kanyo.”

 

Kisho took to the west at once. Hiei’s words that their archery was nothing more than child’s play had hurt his ego. If that were true, his desire to be the best archer in the world could not possibly be fulfilled any time soon. Nonetheless, he needed to find out if his skills were indeed child’s play when compared to this new master, and was very anxious to meet him and lay challenge to his craft. So, he focused every bit of himself on hurrying along his way. With his soles ripped and calves wounded, Kisho clambered up treacherous craggy hills and traversed many a plank road. After a month-long journey, he finally arrived at his goal of summiting the mountain.

Welcoming Kisho in his all-fired-up state at the top of the mountain was an ancient man as old as the hills, with kind, sheepish eyes. He was probably over one hundred years old. His lower back was bent, and his silver beard dragged the ground as he walked.

Thinking he might be deaf, in a loud voice, Kisho hastily announced the purpose of his visit and stated he would like him to observe his skills. Without waiting for a response and sparing not a second he impatiently removed the willow-hemp bow from his back. Then, he nocked a stone- tipped arrow and aimed it in the direction of a flock of migratory birds passing by high in the sky at just that moment. Direct from his bow flew the arrow, snagging five large birds and sending them vividly downward, slicing through the clear blue sky.

“You are through and through, it seems,” the old master smiled calmly. “But it is only archery of archery. You, young lad, have not seemed to grasp archery of no archery.”

The old recluse led a slightly offended Kisho to the top of a cliff two hundred feet from that point. Its edge was as vertical in nature as a folding screen. So high it was, that a quick peek at the filament-thin mountain stream just below would immediately set one dizzy. At the edge of the cliff, an unstable rock jutted halfway into the space beyond. The old master rushed up to it, leapt on top without hesitation, turned around to face Kisho, and said, “Now, could you show me your skill again here on top of this rock?” Too late to back down on what he started, Kisho stepped atop the rock, switching positions with the master and causing the rock to sway noticeably under his feet. Kisho summoned the courage to nock an arrow, and at that very second, a pebble fell from the edge of the cliff. As he chased the pebble with his eyes, he found himself unconsciously dropping into a crouch. His legs were trembling, his sweat dripping complete to his soles. Laughing, the old master outstretched his hand, guided Kisho down from the rock and stepped onto it himself. It was then he said, “So now, let me show you what archery is about.” Kisho, in spite of his face being blue and his heart still racing, all of a sudden noticed something and said, “But what about your bow? Your bow?” The old man was bare handed. “Bow?” laughed the old man. “When you still need a bow and arrow, it is archery of archery. Archery of no archery requires no fancy black lacquered bow and no prized arrow from Sushen.”

Just above them, a black kite leisurely circled high in the sky. Kanyo watched it for a brief period of time; it was so high in the air it looked to be no bigger than a sesame seed. A while later, he nocked an invisible arrow to an invisible bow and pulled the string so far back it matched the curve of the bow itself, looking now like a moon in full. Then, he released it. Instantly, the kite fell from the middle of the sky like a rock with nary a flap of its wings.

Kisho was left awestruck. For the first time, he felt as though he had gotten a glimpse into the endless path that is the “way of art.”

For nine years, he remained with the old master, absent from the world. No one knew what sort of training he had accumulated during that time.

When Kisho finally descended from the mountain, people were surprised by how much his face had changed. Gone was the winner-takes-all person people knew Kisho to be… his bold, masculine visage superseded by a now wooden and inscrutable countenance. When Kisho visited his ex-teacher Hiei, however, Hiei found himself impressed at first glance and shouted, “I can see now you are a real master unique under the heavens and beyond compare! The rest of us cannot hold a candle to you!”

Upon his return to the imperial city of Handan, Kisho was heralded as the one and only master. People were frenetic in anticipation of witnessing his virtuosity, surely to be on display.

However, Kisho never responded to the demands of the people, nor did he consider picking up a bow. He even seemed to have discarded that hemp-willow bow he carried with him into the mountains. When a man asked the reason for the absence of his bow, he answered sluggishly, “Good deeds are ones not completed, the best words are ones not spoken, and great archery is that not released.” “I see!” said the receptive city dweller from Handan knowingly. Thereafter, the townsfolk took pride in this master of archery who did not wield a bow. The less Kisho touched one, the more his reputation as an unrivaled master grew.

All sorts of rumors were passed about among the people. For instance, in the middle of the night, the sounds of bow strings from an unidentifiable entity were known to be heard on Kisho’s rooftop. People believed a god of archery residing in the body of Master Kisho exited his flesh when he slept, taking on the duty of protecting him from specters all night long. In another, a merchant living near Kisho’s home swore one night he witnessed the rare sight of Kisho shooting again—high over his house atop a cloud—in a friendly archery competition with the ancient masters Gei and Yang Youji. The three masters were seen shooting arrows into the night sky, a band of pale blue light trailing behind each one as they disappeared between the Three Stars and Sirius. Lastly, a robber confessed of having tried to break into Kisho’s eerily quiet home. He had just hoisted himself up and placed his foot upon the ledge when a direct wave of chi energy shot from the house, hit him squarely on the forehead, and sent him tumbling to the ground without a clue as to what had just happened. In the months and years since, those of an unrighteous mindset never came within a 100,000 square meter circumference of the home and smart migratory birds dared not pass through the airspace above.

As his reputation took the form of a mystic shroud, Master Kisho gradually aged amidst it. No longer attached to achieving, Kisho’s mind was liberated from thoughts of archery, his soul now deeply swimming within a place of peaceful stillness. His already wooden face lost all further trace of emotion. He rarely spoke. And, he came to a point where it was even difficult for one to tell if he was breathing. “At this point, I cannot distinguish between him and me, nor am I able to separate good from bad. It seems the eyes are like the ears, the ears are like the nose, and the nose is like the mouth.” This statement came from the old master in his closing years.

Forty years after he left Master Kanyo, Kisho exited life quietly. Really quietly, like a puff of smoke. And during those forty years, he had never once spoken of archery. Because he had never spoken of archery, one can assume, of course, that he had also never wielded a bow or arrow. As a parable writer, I’m desperate in my desire for the old master’s tale to end gloriously, so I may illustrate to you precisely why he is a true master. However, I have a duty not to distort the truth written in the old texts. The reality is that in his old age, Kisho’s virtue was transmitted naturally to people without any attempt from him, and that was all there was to it. Except for one peculiar story, which follows.

This story seems to have taken place one or two years before he died. One day, Kisho was invited to a friend’s house. There, he noticed some sort of implement. Surely, it looked familiar, but he could not recall its name nor determine its use. Old Kisho asked his host, “What is that thing called, and what is it for?” Of course, the man assumed Kisho was joking and gave him a playful, knowing grin. Hardly joking, Kisho persisted and asked again. His friend, now completely unsure as to the master’s intent, flashed a rather weakened smile. When asked a third time in a dead serious tone, he appeared stunned. He stared into Kisho’s eyes. Then, as he realized he was not mistaking what was being said, Kisho was not joking, and the master was not going insane, the fear-filled consternation showed on his face, and he shouted in stammer, “Ah, Master! He, the greatest archery master of all time, completely forgets a bow?! Ah! He forgets the name of it and how to use it!”

For a considerable amount of time after that, in the imperial town of Handan, it had been said that painters hid their brushes, musicians cut the strings of their zithers, and artisans were ashamed to hold their rulers.

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