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In the Square of a Thousand Winds the frost-covered players look like snowmen. White vapor billows from their mouths and noses, and icicles growing along the underside of their fur hats point sharply downwards. The sky is pearly and the crimson sun is sinking, dying. Where does the sun go to die?
When did this square become a meeting place for go players? I don't know. After so many thousands of games, the checkerboards engraved on the granite tables have turned into faces, thoughts, prayers.
Clutching a bronze hand-warmer in my muff, I stamp my feet to thaw out my blood. My opponent is a foreigner who came here straight from the station. As the battle intensifies, a gentle warmth washes through me. Daylight is dwindling and the stones are almost indistinguishable. Suddenly someone lights a match and a candle appears in my opponent's left hand. The other players have all left and I know that Mother will be sick with worry to see her daughter come home so late. The night has crept down from the sky and the wind has stirred. The man shields the flame with his gloved hand. From my pocket I take a flask of clear spirit which burns my throat. When I put it under the stranger's nose, he looks at it incredulously. He is bearded and it's hard to tell his age; a long scar runs from the top of his eyebrow and down through his right eye, which he keeps closed. He empties the flask with a grimace.
There is no moon tonight, and the wind wails like a newborn baby. Up above us, a god confronts a goddess, scattering the stars.
The man counts the stones once and then twice. He has been beaten by eighteen points; he heaves a sigh and hands me his candle. Then he stands up, unfolding a giant's frame, gathers his belongings and leaves without a backward glance.
I stow the stones in their wooden pots. They are crisp with frost in my fingers. I am alone with my soldiers, my pride gratified. Today, I celebrate my one hundredth victory.
My little mother barely comes up to my chest. Prolonged mourning for her husband has dried her out. When I tell her I have been posted to Manchuria, she pales.
"Mother, please, it is time your son fulfilled his destiny as a soldier."
She withdraws to her room without a word.
All evening her devastated shadow is silhouetted against the white paper screen. She is praying.
This morning the first snows fell on Tokyo. Kneeling with my hands flat on the tatami, I prostrate myself before the altar of my ancestors. As I come back up I catch sight of the portrait of venerable Father: he is smiling at me. The room is filled with his presenceif only I could take a part of it all the way to China!
My family is waiting for me in the living room, sitting on their heels and observing a ceremonial silence. First of all, I say good-bye to my mother, as I used to when I left for school. I kneel before her and say, "Okasama,* I am leaving." She bows deeply in return.
I pull on the sliding door and step out into the garden. Without a word, Mother, Little Brother and Little Sister follow me out. I turn and bow down to the ground. Mother is crying and I hear the dark fabric of her kimono rustling as she bows in turn. I start to run. Losing her composure, she launches herself after me in the snow.
I stop. So does she. Afraid that I might throw myself into her arms, she takes one step back.
"Manchuria is a sister country," she cries. "But there are terrorists trying to sour the good relations between our two emperors. It is your duty to guard this uneasy peace. If you have to choose between death and cowardice, don't hesitate: choose death!"
We embark amid tumultuous fanfares. Soldiers' families jostle with each other on the quay, throwing ribbons and flowers, and shouts of farewell are salted with tears.
The shore draws farther and farther away and with it the bustle of the port. The horizon opens wide, and we are swallowed up in its vastness.
We land at Pusan in Korea, where we are packed into a train heading north. Towards dusk on the third day the convoy comes to a halt, and we leap gleefully to the ground to stretch our legs and empty our bladders. I whistle as I relieve myself, watching birds wheeling in the sky overhead. Suddenly I hear a stifled cry and I can see men running away into the woods. Tadayuki, fresh from the military academy, is lying stretched out on the ground ten paces from me. The blood springs from his neck in a continuous stream, but his eyes are still open. Back on the train I cannot stop thinking about his young face twisted into a rictus of astonishment.
Astonishment. Is that all there is to dying?
The train arrives at a Manchurian station in the middle of the night. The frost-covered ground twinkles under the streetlamps, and in the distance dogs are howling.
Cousin Lu taught me to play go when I was four years old and he was twice my age. The long hours of contemplating the checkered board were a torment, but the will to win kept me there.
Ten years later Lu was considered an exceptional player, so famous for his talents that the Emperor of independent Manchuria received him at his court in the new capital. He never thanked me for propelling him to this glory: I am his shadow, his secret, his best opponent.
At twenty, Lu is already an old man, and the hair that falls over his brow is white. He walks with his back hunched over and his hands crossed, taking small steps. A few pubescent hairs have appeared on his chin, a baby-beard on a centenarian.
A week ago I received a letter from him.
"I am coming for you, my little cousin. I have decided to talk to you about our future..."
The rest of the letter is an illegible confession: my painfully discreet cousin must have dipped his pen in very weak ink because his cursive ideograms are strung out between the watermarks like white storks flying in the mist. Endless and indecipherable, his letter written on a long sheet of rice paper undid me.
It is snowing so heavily that we have to stop training. Trapped by the frost, the cold and the wind, we spend our days playing cards in our rooms.
Apparently the Chinese who live out in the country in northern Manchuria never wash, and they ward off the cold by coating themselves in fish fat. As a result of our protests, a bathhouse has been built in our barracks, and officers and soldiers alike queue up outside it. Inside the bathhouse, through the haze of steam, the walls can be seen trickling with condensation. In the doorway, molten snow boils furiously in a huge vat. Each man draws off his ration in a cracked enamel bucket.
I undress and wash myself with a towel dampened in this cloudy liquid. Not far away the officers have formed a circle, and as they scrub each other's backs, they discuss the latest news. As I go over to them, I recognize the man speaking: Captain Mori, one of the veterans who fought for Manchurian independence.
This morning's newspaper tells us that Major Zhang Xueliang has taken Chiang Kai-shek hostage in the town of Xian,* where he and his exiled army have sought refuge for six years. In exchange for the generalissimo's freedom, Zhang Xueliang has demanded that the Kuomintang be reconciled with the Communist Party to reconquer Manchuria.
"Zhang Xueliang is unworthy of his good name and he's an inveterate womanizer," Captain Mori says dismissively. "The very day after September 18, 1931, when our army had surrounded the town of Shen Yang where he had his headquarters, the degenerate weakling fled without even attempting to resist us. As for Chiang Kai-shek, he's a professional liar. He'll welcome the Communists with open arms, the better to throttle them."
"No Chinese army can take us on," threw in one of the officers while his back was energetically scrubbed by his orderly. "The civil war has ruined China. One day, we'll annex the entire territory, another Korea. You'll see, our army will follow the railway that runs from northern China to the south. In three days we'll take Peking, and six days later we'll be marching through the streets of Nanking; eight days after that we'll be sleeping in Hong Kong, and that will open up the doors to Southeast Asia."
Their comments confirm various rumors, already rife in Japan, in the heart of our infantry. Despite our government's reticence, the conquest of China becomes more inevitable every day.
That evening I go to sleep relaxed, and happy to be clean.
I am roused by a rustling of clothes: I am sleeping in my own room, and Father is sitting in the next room, wrapped in his dark-blue cotton yukata. Mother is walking up and down, the bottom of her lavender-gray kimono opening and closing over a pale-pink under-kimono. She has the face of a young woman; there is not a single wrinkle round her almond-shaped eyes. A smell of springtime wafts around herit's the perfume Father had sent from Paris!
I suddenly remember that she has not touched that bottle of perfume since Father died.
Cousin Lu is becoming more and more stooped. He tries to seem nonchalant, indifferent, but those dark unsettling eyes peer out of his emaciated face, watching my every move. When I look into his eyes and ask him, "What's the matter, Cousin Lu?" he says nothing.
I challenge him to a game of go. He turns pale and fidgets on his chair; his every move betrays his volatile mood. The territory he is trying to defend on the board is either too cramped or too sprawling, and his genius is reduced to a few strange and ineffectual moves. I can tell that he has again been reading ancient tracts on go; he gets them from his neighbor, an antique dealer, and a forger of the first order. I even wonder whether, after reading so many of these manuscripts, which are said to have sacred origins and are filled with Taoist mysteries and tragic anecdotes, my cousin is going to end up succumbing to madness, as players used to in the past.
"My cousin," I say when, instead of thinking about his position, he is staring at my plait and daydreaming, "what's happened to you?"
Lu flushes immediately as if I have found out his secret. He gives a little cough and looks like a doddering old man.
"What have you learned from your books, my cousin?" I taunt him impatiently. "The secret of immortality? You look more and more like those dithering old alchemists who think they hold the secret of purple cinnabar."
He isn't listening to me. He isn't looking at me either, but at his own last letter to me, which I have left on the table. Ever since he arrived he has been waiting for my reply to his illegible demands. I am determined not to breathe a word.
He goes home to the capital, full of flu, a broken man. I go to the station with him, and as I watch the train disappearing into the swirling snow, I have a strange feeling of relief.
At last, my first mission!
Our detachment has received orders to track down a group of terrorists who are challenging our authority onthe ground in Manchuria. Disguised as Japanese soldiers, they attacked a military reserve and stole arms and munitions.
For four days we follow a river locked under ice, with the wind against us and the fallen snow swirling round our knees. Despite my new coat, the cold slices through me more sharply than a saber, and I can no longer feel my hands or feet. The marching has drained my head of all thought. Laden like an ox and with my head tucked down inside the collar of my uniform, I ruminate on the hope that I will soon be able to warm myself by a campfire.
As we reach the foot of a hill, gunshots ring out. Just in front of me several soldiers are hit and fall to the ground. We are trapped! From their positions up above, the enemy can shoot down on us and we cannot return their fire. A sharp pain twists my gutI'm wounded! I'm dying! I feel tentatively with my hand: no wound at all, just a cramp produced by feara discovery that covers me in shame. I look up and wipe the snow that has stuck to my eyes, and I can see that our more experienced soldiers have leaped down onto the frozen river, where they are sheltering behind the banks and returning fire. I leap to my feet and start to run. I could be hit a thousand times, but in war the difference between life and death depends on a mysterious game of chance.
Our machine guns open fire and, covered by their powerful barrage, we make our assault. To make up for my earlier cowardice, I launch myself into battle at the head of the platoon, brandishing my saber.
I have been brought up in a world dominated by honor. I have known neither crime, poverty nor betrayal, and here I taste hatred for the first time: it is sublime, like a thirst for justice and revenge.
The sky is so charged with snow that it is threatening to collapse. The gunmen are sheltering behind huge boulders, but the smoke rising from their weapons gives away their position. I throw two grenades and when they explode, legs, arms and shreds of flesh fly out from a whirl of snow and flames. I scream with triumphant pleasure at this hellish sight and, leaping towards a survivor who is taking aim at me, I strike him with my saber. His head rolls in the snow.
At last I can look my ancestors in the face. By handing their blade down to me they also bequeathed me their courage. I have not sullied their name.
The battle leaves us in a trancelike state. Stimulated by the blood, we whip our prisoners to break them down, but the Chinese are harder than granite, and they do not falter. We weary of the game and kill them: two bullets in the head.
Night falls and, fearing there may be other traps ahead, we decide to make camp where we are. Our wounded groan in the dark, a dialogue of moans, and then silence. Their lips are frozen. They will not survive.