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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

The Three Heads

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

The man reached into a bag. He pulled out a head.

The head was scrubbed with soap, with the hair combed and tied up in a knot. The teeth were dyed black, as was the custom of the court, and all people of refined manners. Red powder was brushed on the lips and cheeks. The base of the neck, where the sword had snatched the head from its body, had been trimmed of stray chunks of flesh and bone.

The man placed the head on a lacquered wooden tray. Such care had the man taken to prune the neck that the head balanced perfectly. The head did not so much as wobble as an attendant lifted the tray and carried it over to the lord’s camp chair.

The lord had already tasted three cups of wine since the battle, and his blood hissed for the drinking, singing, dancing, games and poetry that would unfurl into morning. All masks of rank would fall in the raucous play of brothers. But for now, duty.

The lord flicked his fan, a signal that the head should be brought close. The lord lifted the head by the hair with his right hand, and clasped the jaw with his left hand. Even with the head in his hands, the lord did not show any flash or tremble of joy or fear.

The wooden tag tied to the hair identified this as the head of Terukage, a despised and feared enemy commander. The face evoked in the lord a moonlight ambush, and he remembered his pounding heart as he slammed his boots into the side of his skidding horse, loyal men stumbling in mud behind him so their lord could skitter away like a lizard with a snipped tail.

Terukage. An accomplished warrior. Also known as a fussy quartermaster and an enthusiastic connoisseur of farming ditties. But all the bustle of life was finished. Did Teukage’s spirit scorn this final duty as mute exhibit to another warrior’s strength, or did it accept this as the inevitable destiny of a samurai?

And would this be the lord’s fate one day?

Another flick of the fan, and the head was removed from the tent.

The lord regarded the bowing soldier. Yoshie. Young and reckless, but a model of steadfast service. It was right that a promising samurai had captured this prize.

Another flick. An attendant carried in an identical tray. This tray was stacked with gold bars, each stamped with the lord’s plum blossom crest.

Yoshie could not suppress a grin of delight. To show emotion in this grave moment was inappropriate, but the lapse pleased the lord. True, Yoshie’s decorum was not perfect… But the lord liked Yoshie more for how Yoshie’s exuberance displayed the lord’s immaculate manners, as a black cloth helps golden embroidery shimmer.

And if Yoshie was young, the lord was much younger.

An attendant handed a goblet to Yoshie. The lord raised his wine in toast. Yoshie quaffed the drink down, splashing red on his pristine neck and robe. Through the tent samurai laughed, cheered, shouted, chuckled, clapped.

Gojou the senior retainer nodded, pleased by the lord’s performance in this important ceremony.

Rewards after battle were too important to stain with carelessness, and Gojou chaperoned the details of ceremony. The cleaning of the head, the presentation, the examination, the reward… even the goblet of wine. All this was Gojou’s duty, placing each stone of the path the lord needed to walk to secure the clan’s survival.

Gojou thought of a time only a few years past, just before the lord’s first sortie as a commander of troops.

Today they were camped at the edge of a crow-splattered battlefield, but then they had been secure in the throne room of their home castle. Even perched on the dais of the ruler, the lord was still timid of his authority. On that day, a special helmet was to be bestowed on the lord to mark the beginning of a war.

Gojou knelt near the lord, with the other samurai dressed for battle in rows before them.

A helmet was carried in on a cushion. Lacquered wood, iron plate, silk, and thick cord. Careful and expensive craftsmanship. A striking wood carving dominated the helmet.

It was a gigantic prawn.

The lord’s face squirmed with embarrassment and horror. With shaking hands, he lifted the leaden helmet onto his head, and fumbled with the tangle of cords.

Gojou suggested, casually, that the lord might like to see a different helmet. The lord heaved the helmet from his head, and dropped it on the cushion.

A second helmet was carried in. Like the first, it was a masterpiece of tamed metal and wood, and had a magnificent centerpiece.

It was a massive dumpling.

If the lord had been shaken by the prawn, he was shattered at the prospect of soaring into battle with an enormous dumpling jutting out of his forehead. He took a deep breath and lowered the helmet onto his head, his eyes darting over the ranks of samurai for any flash of amusement or disrespect.

Gojou now suggested, with unimpeachable innocence, that perhaps the lord would like to see a few more helmets.

And so other helmets were brought in: one with two crickets entangled in love, another with a purple monkey’s hand, and even a helmet with a tiny working charcoal fire pit.

By the fire pit, the lord had caught on to Gojou’s joke. He wore this helmet with ease and laughed, and with that the samurai laughed too. Where the lord had been terrified of leading these troops, he now felt their kinship and trust.

He left the dais, strode over to one of the soldiers, and asked for their helmet. He crowned himself with their unadorned and practical helmet. Knotting the straps as he walked, he shouted for the men, and their rumble of feet became the pounding of horse hooves, on to death or glory.

Today’s victory had confirmed the lord’s right to command.

With his role in the ceremony complete, Yoshie sat with the spectators.

Another man bowed before the lord. He reached into a bag, and pulled out a head.

This was Osamu, one of Gojou’s generation who had served the departed lord. Osamu had a prissy and hectoring formality, fed by squirming and rancorous grievance. Osamu was known to point out flaws in the young lord’s conduct, and to opine for the superior acumen of the departed lord.

As much as Osamu abraded his comrades, his officious behaviour scrupulously denied them any opportunity for criticism.

An attendant brought the head to the lord. The lord took the head in his hands and examined it carefully. He then rose and slammed the head on the ground in front of the horrified Osamu.

The lord raved that the head was fake and not the head of an enemy general. That Osamu had hid during the fighting, and then snuck onto the field after the battle and cut the head from a dead pikeman. The lord denounced him as feeble, lazy and craven, and ordered that he be taken and beheaded at once.

Osamu mumbled garbled pleas, and finding the lord’s resolve granite he looked to the other samurai for support. There was no pity in their faces. Too many remembered a lacerating rebuke, and others resented how Osamu’s long career had blocked their own opportunities for promotion.

The lord sat down, and told Osamu he would be allowed to commit suicide to preserve his honour. As they all knew, this would protect Osamu’s family from confiscation of his property. Osamu thanked the lord, and left the tent meekly under guard escort.

To Gojou, it did not matter whether the head Osamu proffered had been a true battlefield kill or the reckless fraud of an unwanted fossil. Osamu had forgotten his place, and this display removed a noxious ally while reminding the other samurai of their lord’s power.

Gojou thought of a time further back, when the lord first reached the age for school. The lord had dawned to his status and become haughty, issuing brusk orders to servants and retainers alike. Gojou knew that a lesson was needed, and that an opportunity would come for the lord’s rough inauguration into manhood.

The catalyst was a missing cup. The lord accused a maid of stealing it, and ordered her beating and expulsion. It was not any special cup, and it was unlikely the maid had stolen it. More likely, that the lord enjoyed the game of a lie, and flaunted his power over the maid. Perhaps he disliked the maid, or wanted to avenge a perceived slight. None of this mattered to Gojou. What mattered was the lesson.

Gojou dragged the lord by his elbow into the training yard. The lord yelled every possible threat, but everyone knew Gojou held the power here. The lord was strapped to a post, and then beaten with a stick in front of the castle staff. A light beating, less than the maid would have received, but enough to shock a boy who had never imagined this could be possible.

The boy was then shipped to another castle, for a spartan lifestyle free of the treats and servants and luxury he had known, coupled with hard days of labour and study and the looming promise of bitter punishments. After a few years, the lord was allowed to return, and greeted with a generous welcome. The lord’s behaviour thereafter was always correct, for he knew where his power came from.

Gojou’s reverie was interrupted by a cacophony outside the tent. The lord asked if it was an attack and barked for his sword. One of the guards rushed in and fell to the ground in apology. A peasant boy had tried to force his way into the camp, claiming he had captured a head for the lord and wanted his reward. The boy had no weapon, and the soldiers had been able to restrain him, but the boy was still yowling to see the lord.

The lord ordered the guard to bring the boy in.

This was a scrawny boy, too young even for school or farm work. He was filthy, and naked except for a loincloth. He glared at the samurai with defiance, and clutched a sack to his chest as though it held sparkling rubies.

The lord asked the boy why he had come here. The boy said he had a head, and wanted gold, like the others got. The lord asked to see it.

The boy reached into his bag. He pulled out a head.

Gojou remembered when the lord had been the same age as this boy. The clan had gone to war over succession. The lord’s older brother had his supporters, and the fights were bitter. But Gojou’s faction had prevailed, and the older brother was finally their prisoner.

Of course, the older brother needed to die. This was for the young lord’s own good, to secure the young lord’s claim and power.

The young lord watched as his older brother opened his stomach with a short sword. The older brother grimaced as he worked the sword from left to right, his teeth clenched to mask the agonising pain. Gojou dropped his sword down on the older brother’s neck to end the pain, detaching the head in a clean strike.

That night, the young lord came to Gojou with a gift, wrapped in silk. Gojou unwrapped it, and saw that the young lord had copied his trusted protector, and chopped off the head of a beloved pet.

And now a starving child had brought the lord a head, with as much pride as the young lord had shown on that night.

The lord ordered his attendants to give the boy the head’s weight in gold, and then escort him from the camp, with a warning not to return. The lord took the head, and reflected on it with regret.

The lord’s eyes met Gojou’s, and each knew that the other was thinking of a night long ago, and a head just like this one.

And they both looked down on the object in the lord’s hands, the head of a kitten.

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