“Move it, you old sack of beans.” He urged on his steed, but in the driving rain and the mud she was rapidly tiring. His lead over his pursuers, once half a day at least, was probably now no more than half an hour.
Since the shogun Tokugawa began the great persecution, militias had been hunting down Christians mercilessly. Now the shogun’s bloodthirsty grandson Iemitsu was in charge, and he had shown himself to be even more ruthless in his determination to eradicate the foreign religion of Christianity from Japanese soil. Already many hundreds of believers had been tortured and executed. Thousands more were in hiding.
The downpour was cutting through Anjiro’s straw cloak, biting him to the bone, as finally he reached the grassy incline and the forest of towering pines. It was the foot of the mountains. Not much further to go now.
“Won’t need you any more,” he muttered. The stolen mare had served him well, despite her age. But from now it would be on foot all the way, through the trees and up the steep slope.
He dismounted. His bag of possessions - cooked rice, a few pickles, a water bottle and his precious holy cross, carved from wood and costing him a month’s wages - were in a cotton bag that he had slung over his shoulder.
He slapped the horse. “Get out of here.” But the animal was fatigued and clearly wished to rest. She bent her neck to chew at some grass.
“I know how you feel,” growled the youth. “But you can’t stay here. They’ll find you. And me.”
Over to one side stood a grove of maples. He suspected a stream might be there. He led the horse forwards, and then moved behind and shoved her on the rump. Then he slapped her again, hard. This time the beast kept walking.
He turned and tried to peer through the rainstorm for any sign of the enemy, but little was visible.
Precious Jesus have mercy on my soul, he prayed inwardly as he began making his way up the steep hillside. Holy Mary, protect your servant.A flash of lightning flared above him and once again he was filled with a chill dread. He did not relish trekking up through the towering pines in the middle of a thunderstorm. But he knew this was his only chance.
The samurai were charged with capturing him, and they would fight to the death - his or theirs - to achieve this. Failure was not an option for them. They might even be required to commit seppuku - harakiri, ritual self-disembowelment - should they not return with his head.
Anjiro was a powerful swordsman. But he was a commoner, and was only permitted to own a shikomizue, a cane with a hidden blade. This would be no match for the steel katana of the samurai, forged by the finest swordsmiths of the land. He knew that despite his skills they would eventually prevail, and would surely cut him to ribbons.
Water was rushing down the hillside in rivulets, and he cursed as he stepped into a stream of mud that sent him skidding face forward to the ground. He grabbed a low-hanging branch and pulled himself to his feet, then resumed his odyssey.
What if he surrendered? Gave himself up without a fight? The samurai might choose to keep him alive, in order to carry him back with them to Edo. Torturing the Christians, forcing them to recant their beliefs, was a spectator sport there, as it was throughout Japan. Their reward for bringing him back alive might be more than simply returning with his head.
And if that happened, could he withstand the torture? Might he too eventually give in and tell the Buddhist interrogators that he no longer believed?
Father Lopez, the gentle Spanish missionary priest with the white beard and red face, had whispered to him the horror stories.
“You need to know, Anjiro-san,” he had said. “You must prepare yourself. But my son, you are blessed with youth and strength, and you are single. You can escape.”
Father Lopez told him about the first martyrs, twenty-six of them, way down south in Nagasaki, who had been roughly crucified on makeshift crosses. One of them was a twelve-year-old boy, Ibaragi Kun. An official urged him to recant his faith. Instead the youngster replied that it would be better for the official to become a Christian, so he too could go to heaven. Then looking the man in the eye he asked, “Sir, which is my cross?”
When directed to the smallest of the crosses on the hill the young man knelt in front of it and embraced it. He sang praises to God as the jeering soldiers trussed him to the cross and then lanced him to death.
As he continued his climb, Anjiro silently prayed that he too might have strength to be a powerful witness to God’s love.
He knew that, if captured alive, he would be ordered to undertake fumie - demonstrate his apostasy by stepping onto a picture of Jesus or Mary.
But once he refused, as surely he would - well, then the torture would commence. He knew that the torture methods had become increasingly refined.
Simple crucifixion was no longer enough. Sometimes the soldiers would crucify people upside-down, or at sea, where the rising tide steadily engulfed the martyrs over many hours. Others were chopped into pieces, or slowly burned - the fire deliberately lit some distance away so it engulfed them only slowly - or scalded to death in one of Japan’s many hot springs.
Worst of all, according to Father Lopez, was being left to dangle upside-down over a pit filled with excrement. For those who were strong and healthy, like Anjiro, blessed death might take a week to arrive.
His thoughts were interrupted as suddenly Anjiro found himself in a clearing, a small plateau with bushes and some red and yellow mountain flowers, and with a view through the downpour, down the mountainside. He was weary from the pursuit and from the climb, but when he peered down he realized to his shock that the two samurai had already arrived. They had tethered their steeds with his, and were surely even now climbing up after him. He could not afford to pause for a rest.
He had memorized his route, and his arrival at this plateau told him he was on the right path. Now he veered off to the right, along a narrow track of soggy pine needles that led to a stream. He jumped over, and then the path once more headed straight up the mountain.
For at least another thirty minutes he trudged upwards, the rain pounding down on him in an unrelenting torrent, as if trying to crush him like an ant. And then, once more, he emerged at some kind of plateau.
It was like entering another world. Perhaps this was heaven. The rain still thundered down. But instead of the darkness of the forest he was now standing on the edge of an idyllic landscape. Over to one side stood a minka, a large wooden homestead with a high thatched roof, capable of housing several families. Land had been cleared around it and crops planted. A small lake over to the other side ran into a rice paddy.
He had arrived.
A couple of children playing under a covered verandah at the front of the minka had spotted him, and cried out. Quickly two men appeared. Anjiro approached.
“I am a believer,” he panted. “Father Lopez has sent me.” He pulled out the tiny metallic crucifix that he wore around his neck and held it up.
The men both appeared to be in their thirties, and were almost certainly brothers. They looked at him. More kids had appeared, and they too were staring.
“I am being followed,” said Anjiro. “Two of them. Tell me if you want me to keep running.”
“Come inside, brother,” said one of the men. “You are safe with us.”
He beckoned for the youth to follow him inside. “Take off your clothes.”
Anjiro stripped to his cotton undergarment. The man shouted to a lady, who came with a quilted gown. She helped him into it.
Then they led him across tatami mats to a large central room. At least a dozen people were sitting around the irori, a hearth in the center of the room with a soft-burning fire. Smoke rose to a makeshift vent, high up in the roof. The room was dark and hazy.
The people around the room nodded their heads in greeting at Anjiro, almost as if they were responding to the return of a family member, rather than the abrupt arrival of a bedraggled and exhausted fugitive.
“You are safe with us,” said an old lady. She took a worn pottery cup, and from an iron kettle she poured him a hot drink.
Anjiro spoke. “What if the men try to enter the house? What if they bring reinforcements?”
“We have many hiding places,” said one of the men.
“But you are believers too. They will find evidence.”
“We are a simple family who worship the Kannon,” replied the man, a grin on his face. He pointed to one side of the room. A carved wooden statue of the Kannon - the Buddhist goddess of mercy - rested against a wall. She was standing, dressed in flowing Japanese robes and wearing an ornate, jeweled headdress. Her soft eyes were almost closed and her thin lips were curved in a beatific smile. In her arms she cradled a small baby.
Now Anjiro also smiled. He recognized this. “Maria Kannon,” he murmured.
It was at this moment that loud shouting could be heard from outside. Anjiro stood and walked to the side of the room, near the Kannon. A hole in the wall allowed him to spy on the scene outside.
It was his first close look at his pursuers. They were young men, both drenched. One was tall and skinny, and he was doing the talking.
“We are looking for a runaway,” he said. “A Christian. He came this way. You must have seen him.”
“We have not seen anyone. But please come inside. We will serve you a hot meal.”
“There is only one path. He must have come this way. You are lying.”
“There are many paths on this mountain. We have not seen anyone.”
“You are lying. You are trying to help him. We are going to search this house.”
“We are farmers. We…”
“You are lying,” screamed the man, and he drew his sword. His companion did the same. “Are you Christians too? Bring forward this man now.”
Now a woman spoke. “We are just farmers,” she said. “Please let us serve you dinner. You are so wet. You can sleep here tonight.”
“You are Christians,” shouted one of the men, thrusting his sword forward. “You know what happens to Christians. We are going to search this house and then we shall put you all to the sword.”
Anjiro felt the first pangs of alarm. He had brought this upon the household. Father Lopez had told him he would find sanctuary here. But he should not have come until he knew that he had thrown off his pursuers. Now they were all in danger.
His hand reached out to the Maria Kannon beside him and he said a silent prayer. Mother Mary, save me. Save us. Protect this home. I beg it of you. In the name of the Holy Father.
Outside, the shouting continued, the words drowned by the roar of thunder. One of the samurai was pointing his sword at the throat of a man from the house.
Mother Mary protect us. Anjiro maintained his silent prayer, watching with horror as the men advanced.
“We shall destroy this house and we shall kill everyone inside,” shouted the skinny man.
It was at that instant that another loud thunderclap rent the sky, rocking the house. At the same instant a blinding flare of lightning illuminated the entire plateau in a vivid white glow.
Then came another noise, an eerie grating sound like the rasping babble of a thousand angry ghosts, and without warning one of the giant pines toppled downwards.
The two men realized too late what was happening. They did not even have time to scream before the tree crushed them both.
Anjiro still had his hand on the wooden statue
Now he looked at it. His eyes were teary. He stroked the head of the statue.
“Maria Kannon. You have saved me.”