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Muna had not climbed the hill to the burial grounds since the last death among the serfs more than two years before, so that when be turned and saw the scene below, a thrill of pleasure went through his body. From a distance it was beautiful. The rice was all harvested now; and against the muted browns and greens of paddy and field, rice straw hung drying on the racks, golden under the late summer sun. On the bank of the shining river sprawled the roofs of the daimyo's manor, like a great, lazy cat stretched out for a summer nap. Across the fields the tiny thatched huts of the serfs tumbled upon one another like a litter of newborn kittens, drawing warmth and assurance from one another's bodies. Beyond field and but and manor lay the ancient pine grove. And then the sea, its white waves crashing upon the rocky coast. And beyond the sea? By the gods, he would soon know. Soon, he promised himself, as be turned and began to dig his mother's grave.
His task complete, Muna returned to his hut to find old Sato's toothless wife washing the corpse. The boy knelt down behind her on the dirt floor, his eyes downcast, his face drawn into a perfect mask of mourning.
"A kimono? Did the poor girl have a kimono for her burial?"
Muna got up wordlessly and fetched from the tiny chest the one decent garment his mother had ever owned. She bad never worn it, of course. It bad been saved for this day, so that no one would despise her poverty.
He settled himself once more behind the old woman, whose rough hands were dressing the dead woman with a kind of gentleness. He could read no expression in his mother's wastedface. "Her spirit will not be angry that I do not weep," he told himself. "Her life was only drudgery and grief, and death is her release. And mine." His heart beat faster. "And mine." For now, nothing held him here in Awa. He could make his way to the capital and begin his search.
"Beg pardon!" Muna turned to see Sato's ugly peasant face thrust through the doorway. "The priest has come." The serf's voice was drawn out in a solemn manner so unsuited to his comical features that Muna laughed silently, deep inside his belly.
"Poor Sato," he thought, "you and the old woman will have to plant the west field all alone now. Never, never again will I bend, ankle-deep in the mud like a water buffalo, until my back wants to scream out." But outwardly Muna was the grief-stricken orphan as he quietly rose to usher in the priest.
Muna had so little food to offer the few peasants who contributed their wails and prayers at the burial grounds that by nightfall the last one had shuffled home, leaving him alone in his hut to light the tapers and pray.
The flames pricked twin holes in the darkness, and for the first time the tiny hut seemed large with loneliness. Muna did not try to pray. He sat cross-legged before the makeshift altar, hugging his knees. She was gone. The only one who bad cared for him. Until now, his mother and he had been like these two candles in a dark, unfriendly world. Tears started in his eyes.
"He was very big, your father." He remembered her breathless little girl's voice. "A fine samurai. Oh! And such a sword -- taller than you, it stood."
In all her life, only the tall samurai was worth remembering, He had spent a few day's on Awa, fathered her son, and never returned.
"It was rumored," she had said each time as though she were revealing a closely kept secret, "that he was on a special mission for his excellency, Heike no Kiyomori." Then, patting Muna's skinny knees, "He would be so proud of you. If only he knew."
"And he will know," Muna thought to himself as he wiped the back of his sleeve across his eyes and nose. "Little Mother," he whispered to the candle. "You think of me only as a child. You were frightened whenever I was out of your sight. But I am no longer a child. I must leave this miserable island and find a life worthy of a man. Until this day, I have let your fears bold me back from my dream. But watch me now without fear, for you will see your son come into his rightful inheritance. I am going to find my true name -- the name of my father's people." His voice grew stronger. "I will be someone to be reckoned with in this world. No longer will men spit on me and call me Muna -- the nameless one.
No. They will bow as I pass. They will prostrate themselves before me and beg favors of me. I shall wear a sword that will slay any man who dishonors my name -- a great sword that will bring new glory to my noble father and to your spirit. But for a little while, I will have to leave your grave unattended while I accomplish these things. First, I must find my father. . . ."
"But how can you be sure that you are my son?" In his recurring daydream, the elegant warrior always looked down on him with a stern dignity that could not hide a wistful gentleness.
And Muna would look him straight in the eyes. "By the chrysanthemum."
At this, the great warrior's eyes would soften, and he would say, his voice choked with emotion, "My son, my son, the gods are good."
The boy was so lost in his dreamings that it was some moments before he became aware of another presence in the room. His mother's spirit? His lack of grief had offended her. Muna clapped his hand to his mouth to keep from crying out...The Sign of the Chrysanthemum. Copyright © by Katherine Paterson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.