Read the First Chapter
Tokyo, Japan – 1890
Toyo watched carefully as his uncle prepared to kill himself.
Before dawn, he had swept and cleaned his uncle’s favorite shrine, down to polishing the small mirror that hung on a post at its center. When that was done, he carefully arranged new tatami mats on the dirt floor. Everything had to be perfect for Uncle Koji’s seppuku.
Now Toyo sat in the damp grass outside the shrine as his uncle moved to the center of the mats. Koji’s face was a mask of calm. He wore a ceremonial white kimono with brilliant red wings – the wings he usually wore only into battle. Toyo’s uncle was clean shaven and recently bathed, and he wore his hair in a tight top-knot like the samurai of old. Koji knelt on the tatami mats and crossed his legs, keeping his hands on his hips and his arms akimbo.
Toyo’s father crouched next to Koji. Though older than his brother, Toyo’s father was slightly smaller than Koji, with a long, thin face and a sharp nose like a katana blade. They used to joke that Koji’s nose had been as straight as his older brother’s, until it had been flattened one too many times in judo practice. But today was no day for jokes. In fact, Toyo couldn’t remember either of them laughing for a long time.
Toyo’s father wore a simple gray kimono with the family swords tucked neatly into his sash. The sight was strange to Toyo. For as long as he could remember, the katana and wakizashi had been retired to a place of honor in their home. Carrying them outside like this was illegal, though Toyo’s father would soon be using the swords to carry out an order signed by the Emperor himself.
Koji bowed to Toyo, the ceremony’s only witness. Returning the bow from his knees, Toyo touched his head to the ground to show his great respect for his uncle. His father nodded, and Toyo stood and picked up a small wooden stand supporting a short sword about as long as his forearm. The point and the edge of the blade were razor sharp. Toyo strained to keep his legs from shaking as he entered the shrine. Kneeling a little clumsily, he bowed low to the ground once more to present the short wakizashi to his uncle.
When he felt the weight of the sword lift from the stand, Toyo looked up at Koji. His uncle held the wakizashi cradled in his hands as though it were a newborn child. Uncle Koji closed his eyes, touched the flat part of the blade to his forehead, and set the wakizashi in front of him on the mat. He gave a quick smile then for Toyo, the same grin he always flashed right before getting them into trouble.
Instead of making him feel better, the grin deepened Toyo’s sense of panic. He didn’t want to lose his uncle. Throughout all the preparations he had fought to focus on something else – anything else. His first day of school at Ichiko tomorrow, his coming sixteenth birthday, even baseball. But when this ceremony was finished his uncle would be dead and gone. Forever. None of his strength, none of his compassion, none of his spirit would remain.
Toyo backed away, unable to meet Koji’s eyes.
“For my part in the samurai uprising at Ueno Park,” Toyo’s uncle said officially, “I, Koji Shimada, have been sentenced to die. The Emperor, in his divine graciousness, has granted me the honor of committing seppuku rather than die at the hands of his executioner. I beg those present here today to bear witness to my death.”
Koji bowed low, and his brother and Toyo bowed in return.
Toyo’s uncle slowly untied the sash around his waist and loosened the kimono wrapped underneath. Pulling the stiff shirt down off his shoulders, Koji exposed his smooth round belly. He tucked the arms of the kimono under his legs, which made him lean forward. Toyo knew this was to help his uncle pitch forward if he should pass out during the ceremony. It would make his father’s job much easier.
Uncle Koji closed his eyes and began the poem he had written for the occasion of his death:
“In the darkness after the earthquake,
The Flowers of Edo burn bright and fast
Only to be replaced in the morning
By the light of a new day.”
When he was finished, the samurai opened his eyes and put his hands on his stomach, almost as if he were saying goodbye to it. Then Koji took the short sword in his hands and turned the blade toward his gut.
“Brother,” Koji said, “please wait until I have finished my task.”
“Hai,” Toyo’s father nodded.
Koji looked past Toyo then, past the little path to the shrine, past the line of trees that circled the clearing. Whether he saw something in the distance or not Toyo didn’t know, but the faraway look stayed in Uncle Koji’s eyes as he plunged the wakizashi into his belly. Blood covered his hands and his jaw locked tight, but Koji held his grip on the sword, dragging it across his stomach from left to right. Toyo fought the urge to look away. To honor his promise to bear witness, he forced himself to watch as his uncle’s insides spilled onto the floor of the Shinto shrine, the body deflating like a torn rice sack.
When Koji had sliced all the way across his stomach, he turned the wakizashi in the wound and pulled it diagonally up through his chest. Never flinching, his eyes remained steady and resolute. The knife reached his heart, and with the last of his strength Koji pulled the wakizashi out, laid it by his side, and fell forward on his hands and knees.
Toyo’s father sprang to his feet, raising the long katana blade high over his head.
“Heeeeeeeeeeeiaaaaaaaaaaaa!” Sotaro cried. He brought the blade down with blinding speed and chopped Koji’s head clean off his body.
The head rolled to a stop inches from Toyo, the eyes staring up at him. Toyo refused to let his father see his fear. As his father wiped the blood from the katana with a piece of paper, Toyo commanded his legs to stand.
“Did you watch carefully?” his father asked.
“Hai,” Toyo said.
“You observed precisely how it was done?”
“Good,” Sotaro Shimada said to his son. “Soon you will do the same for me.”
Excerpted from Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz by permission of Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Putnam. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2005 by Alan Gratz