THERE WAS something missing in the eyes. He’d gotten their look essentially right, but the gaze was still lacking some element he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
The pencil sketch of the man, inelegantly taped to the wall above his desk, had become his favorite place for his eyes to linger. He didn’t suppose a Japanese man in the nineteenth century—even a samurai warlord—would be that tall, but something had made him draw the white silk kimono as though it draped beautifully down long legs. The clean lines of the kimono mimicked the smooth strands of raven hair flowing down below the warlord’s shoulders, accentuated by the knotted tail at the top of the head toward the back. The warlord held his curved samurai sword in an odd one-handed grip, horizontally across the front of his body.
The face was classically Japanese, with high cheekbones, dark slanted eyes, and pale porcelain skin like a mask. The man was perhaps thirty years old, and the look in his eyes was that of a born leader.
Michael rubbed his eyes tiredly, turning back to his textbook on the late-Edo period in Japan and trying to find where he’d stopped reading. Finals began in three days, and in the midst of studying, filing the necessary forms to graduate, and everything else, he’d been having unexplained dizzy spells; one moment he’d be fine, and the next he’d be leaning against the nearest wall or solid piece of furniture. After a few moments of closed eyes and deep breathing, it would go away.
Stress-induced vertigo, Ellen would say. Get out and ride a bike; go for a walk in Tilden Park. Stop living in your head. She was a civil engineering major and a black belt in karate, equally qualified to build a bridge or kick your head in. He wasn’t sure if he had eventually bored her into stopping the sexual part of their relationship or what else exactly had gone wrong. Ellen was less emotional than he was and had never told him. The name “Nakamura” was still under “Holden” on his mailbox downstairs, and she still had the key to the apartment. Let’s just be friends for a while and see what happens, she’d said on her way out the door.
He stared up at the sketch again. For an Asian studies major, he supposed it wasn’t actually odd to dream about a samurai warlord, although he would’ve felt more comfortable if he’d dreamed about geishas instead.
Michael blinked. Where had that thought come from?
He needed a break.
He went to the bathroom and bent over the sink to wash his face. He grabbed the hand towel, dried himself off, and looked in the mirror.
His eyes were bloodshot, and his face overall was looking a bit haggard. Finals would be over soon, and he could sleep then.
Until then, however, his schedule sucked.
Michael closed his eyes, then opened them once more to really look at himself.
His light brown hair had gotten shaggy; he needed a haircut. His blue eyes and even features stared back at him from the mirror. Ellen hadn’t been the first girl who’d told him he was attractive, but he still couldn’t see it himself. The looks he got from girls, the hints they dropped around him, and the invitations to social functions and hiking clubs and other coed group activities had always left him cold.
It wasn’t that he disliked the young women who invited him to these things with their eyes hopefully gazing up at him. He just didn’t feel any real pull toward any of them.
That he wasn’t sure what he was going to do next in his life added to his sense of being unsettled. His circumstances allowed him to do whatever he wanted without thinking about money. Ironically that left him more indecisive than ever.
He could take a year off, travel to Japan and around Asia, then maybe apply to grad school. His grades were good enough to get into the better universities. Maybe he’d try the East Coast schools. He’d always lived in California. Perhaps a change of scenery would help….
He returned to his bedroom and to his desk, resolving to get down to his studies again.
Suddenly the dizziness was back. He was glad he was sitting down. Closing his eyes, he rubbed his temples briefly and then lowered his head to the book, resting his forehead on the open pages.
Just a few moments… and it should pass….
THE FIRST thing he noticed was the smell of wet earth.
He could feel that he was lying on his back, which didn’t make any sense, because he’d been sitting at his desk. Even stranger, his clothes felt damp.
Michael turned onto his side and cautiously opened his eyes.
He was in a field of tall grass, lying in a patch of mud. It was broad daylight. The soft sound of gently moving water pooling around rocks and trickling downstream reached his ears.
The bright sun hurt his eyes, so he shut them, thinking, She was right. Now I’m seeing and hearing things.
But how is it that I’m feeling things?
He opened his eyes again and half raised himself to look around. Slowly he got to his feet.
He was standing in the middle of a valley bounded by mountains on three sides. The stream he heard was to his right, which he somehow knew was east, although he couldn’t say how. To the west he saw something he’d only read about: water-drenched fields of rice… with people wearing conical straw hats… like out of a… a….
This can’t be real.
One of the peasants turned in his direction, and Michael hurriedly crouched down in the tall grass. The mud squelched unpleasantly beneath him. His pants and shirt were sticking to him.
A small copse of trees stood upstream in the distance. He moved cautiously through the grass until he could hide under the tree closest to the stream, and pulled off his shirt.
This is just a very real-seeming dream. It was nighttime, I was studying, I fell asleep at my desk, and my imagination has taken me to historical Japan. Very funny—hysterical, really. How did this mud get into my pants?
He took off his shoes and socks, pants, and finally his briefs, then tested the stream with his hand. The water was cold, but not agonizingly so. He threw water over his arms, shoulders, and neck.
Shouldn’t cold water wake a person up?
He rinsed the rest of his body, the water bracing him. Finally he dashed water on his face, thinking, This should do it. Wake up, already!
A little prickly feeling on the back of his neck made him turn around.
He’d seen illustrations of samurai, photographs even. Once Commodore Perry had arrived to open Japan in 1853, all manner of Western goods and technology had flooded into the previously closed society, including daguerreotype cameras. But seeing pictures of samurai and seeing a group of them standing ten feet away from you were two different things.
They were dressed in kataginu, the sleeveless open-sided vests, and hakama, the divided skirt-like pants worn by late-Edo-period samurai. They were of different heights, none as tall as Michael, though what they lacked in height they more than made up for in sheer ferocity of appearance. Their hair was long and tied in a variety of topknots, and they carried the traditional two swords, one long and one short. He stared at them. They stared back at him. “Gaijin,” one said in amazement.
Michael opened his mouth to say something. “Shit,” he finally managed.
The samurai leader—a fiery small man—glared at him. “Toraero!” he barked to the others. In a heartbeat they were on Michael, and threw a large blanket over his head and body. “Shiro e tsurete ike!”
Okay. Now it’s for real.
MICHAEL COULDN’T see or hear under the blanket. He sensed he was being walked down a street and there were people and buildings on either side of him. If he had heard the leader right and he was being taken to a castle, then this was the main street of the castle town. He tried to envision the scene outside his blanketed world: farmers, merchants, traders, ox carts, foodstuffs and goods for sale. And all of them staring at the naked man under the blanket being hustled along by the daimyÅ’s men.
He nearly stumbled as he was moved along, occasionally pushed from behind.
The noises from the street faded. Michael heard a door open as they entered a more enclosed space.
The blanket was whipped off, and Michael saw they were in a dank corridor. He guessed this was the lowest level of the castle.
Finally they entered a room. Two samurai got his arms behind him, and he was held fast.
The leader slowly walked up to him. The men behind Michael gripped him tighter.
The man was about three inches shorter than Michael, making him perhaps five feet seven, and he had most of his long black hair coiled into a seamless topknot. He had a bushy mustache, and his small beady eyes fixed on Michael with personal malevolence, as though Michael had stolen something precious from him.
The leader unsheathed his sword, drawing it out slowly, giving Michael time to watch and think about it as the silver blade glinted in the sunlight slanting in from the small high window.
He placed the tip of the blade beneath Michael’s chin. Michael stood completely still. “Doko kara kita?”
Where do you come from? Michael thought quickly. Should I answer him in Japanese or in English? Would he understand where California is? Should I say nothing at all? He stared at the man, his thoughts a jumble with no clear answer.
Taking Michael’s silence as a challenge, the man slapped him across the face. “Gaijin,” he spat. He nodded at the other samurai, and Michael was pushed to the floor. Terror overtook him. He struggled as first his wrists and then his ankles were bound.
“TÅru,” someone called.
Michael saw the leader—TÅru—turn and go to the doorway and speak to someone just outside in the hall as hands kept Michael down.
He tried to look, but his face was held fast against the floor. Panting, he tried not to panic as he heard footsteps approach.
Abruptly he was pulled up to his knees. He lifted his head, but a hand shoved it down, forcing his chin to his chest and leaving him staring at the floor. He heard the other samurai leave the room.
A lone set of soft footfalls approached, almost silently. Michael’s knees ached on the wooden floor, and he felt cold for the first time, kneeling naked with his ankles and wrists bound. The one saving grace was that his wrists were bound in front of his body, allowing him to cover his privates with his hands.
He kept his eyes downcast as the man came closer. The feeling of complete unreality was back, like in the muddy field. The man stopped a few feet in front of him. Silence filled the room as the man regarded Michael.
Finally the man said, “Kao o agero,” and Michael looked up.
It was the samurai warlord he had drawn in his sketch—the one from his dream.