From Chapter 2: The Samurai of Bird Island
June 27, 1841 (12th Year of Tempo, Year of the Ox)
Earth. Sky. Wind. Sea.
Sometimes it seemed as if that was all there were. All there ever had been. All there ever would be.
There was this scrap of earth — just a big rock, really. And there was a cave in the rock, which offered shelter. Not warm shelter, but shelter.
There was sky, plenty of sky, all the sky you could want. Day after day it hung like a swath of blue silk, and at night like a black velvet cloak studded with cold jewels. It gave little warmth. And barely any rain.
There was the wind. Howling, growling, moaning, roaring.
And there was the glittering sea.
"Blue as a barbarian's eye," Goemon had said. "I hate the sea." They had been climbing the rocks toward the albatross nests. That was back when the fool birds were easy to catch, because they would not abandon the eggs in their nests. You could just reach out and grab them.
"Goemon-chan!" Manjiro had scolded his friend. "How can you say you hate the sea?"
"I know, I know," Goemon said. "The sea has a powerful kami, but look at her! She is so cruel! Nothing but water as far as you can see, yet can we drink even a handful? Full of fish, yet can we catch one? When we get out of here, I'm never going to look at the sea again."
"But you are a fisherman, Goemon-chan," Manjiro had said. "How will you fish, if you never look at the sea?"
"I shall wear a blindfold," he said.
• • •
That was back when they used to laugh. Back when there had been birds, thousands of albatross flopping about on their enormous feet, clacking their bills and flapping their huge wings.
But that was then.
Now Manjiro hung over a rock ledge, groping with his fingers on the underside for any clinging shellfish or strip of seaweed. Something to bring back to the others, who were too weak to leave the cave. With his back to the sky and his belly pressed to the earth, Manjiro stared down into the blue eye of the sea.
The water was so clear, he could see straight to the bottom. A snail was making a path like a shiny ribbon slowly unfurling on the sand. How does a snail move when it has no feet? he wondered. And where was the tiny creature going with such purpose?
Manjiro watched it, losing himself in its slow, graceful movement. He remembered how the days had passed, so many sunrises fading into sunsets, until finally he had lost count.
• • •
There had been the first day, of course, the day their little boat had splintered on the rocks. Manjiro, Goemon, and Toraemon dove in just before the boat capsized, but Denzo and Jusuke had been trapped underneath. Eventually, all five made it to shore, but Jusuke's leg was injured in the struggle. Still unhealed, Jusuke never left the cave.
There had been the day the earth shook and rocks tumbled down, blocking the entrance to their shelter. But they had been able, with all of them pushing, to roll the rocks away. That was back when they had enough strength for work like that.
The few days the sky had given up some rain were very good days. Rain pooled in the depressions and cracks in the rock. The fishermen collected water in eggshells and the bucket that had drifted ashore, but nothing held enough to last until the next rain. They rationed their water: one oyster shell per bird eaten. That was back when there had been water. And birds.
There had been so many birds, they had gotten sick of them.
"Oh, for a cucumber!" Goemon had said one day. "A bite of sweet potato! I am soooo sick of raw bird."
But Manjiro had an idea. "Let us cook them today, Goemon," he said.
"Yes, let's, with a nice rich sauce and many spices. ... ," Goemon teased, but then grew serious. "Manjiro-chan, you know our flint and steel are on the bottom of the sea. We have no fire."
"I've been thinking, though," Manjiro said. "Maybe there's another way."
They skinned the birds as usual, with the fish spears they'd salvaged from the boat wreck. Next, they pounded the bird meat with stones until it turned into a kind of paste.
"Now we'll let the sun bake it," Manjiro said, smearing the paste on a rock. "All we have to do is wait."
While they waited, they stared out across the ocean, toward the northwest — toward home. Manjiro's stomach tightened with worry. How was his family getting along without him? Were his little sisters gathering taro in the mountains, trying to find something to eat? Oh, how he wished he could fly like these birds, wheeling and caterwauling above them! He would fly home to his family; he could take them a fish in his beak!
"Thinking about home?" Goemon said.
"I guess you'll never become a samurai now, huh, Manjiro-chan?"
"Why not?" Manjiro asked.
"Even if we should get home, you know very well you can't be. You weren't born into a samurai family. You were born a fisherman's son and you will be a fisherman, and any sons you have, they also will be fishermen. That is the way it is; that is the way it has always been; that is the way it will always be."
Manjiro sighed. That was always the reason; that had always been the reason; and, he supposed, that would always be the reason.
From Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus. Copyright 2010 by Margi Preus. Excerpted by permission of Amulet Books.