Military Orders Novels
In the Middle Ages, military orders like the Templars defended Christians and fought for justice. Now, in Martin Roth's latest series of novels, a church has established a clandestine new military order, to fight for today's persecuted Christians...
The Maria Kannon
Anjiro knew what they did to Christians, and he was not going to let it happen to him. But first he had to evade the two samurai who had been tracking him for the past four days.
“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.”
Even in late spring the mountainous terrain of Yamagata prefecture is shrouded with snow, and, as the Shinkansen bullet train emerged from the gloom of another tunnel, Luiz Kim confronted a picture postcard vista that might almost have been Switzerland, rather than northern Japan.
Snow-draped peaks swept high before him to a glimmering blue sky. Rows of tall pines stood like sentinels guarding a cluster of spacious wooden farmhouses, a couple of them with steep, thatched roofs. Down below the raised rail line he could see a trio of weather-beaten villagers, clad in padded-quilt jackets and black rubber boots, plodding along the narrow country road.
Luiz had been here in Japan for less than twenty-four hours, and, though he felt enormous apprehension about the reunion that lay ahead, already he was liking this country. It was clean. Everything worked well. The trains ran on time. This, he knew, was a place of order. And order was important.
Maybe I’ll come here to live, was the thought that increasingly jumped into his brain. After all, I have to live somewhere.
The bullet train was racing ahead at eighty miles per hour, but the ride was smooth and the noise was a low, satisfying space-age whoosh.
Luiz stretched back in the firm and extremely comfortable seat. He was by the window. Next to him was a middle-aged sarariman - a white-collar company drone - in a blue suit, white shirt and thin blue tie, picking with chopsticks at his bento box meal.
The man had not even acknowledged him. Luiz liked that. So different from that time he toured southern Europe on a Eurail pass, to be continually accosted by Mediterranean nationals eager to share wine and conversation. Who needed that?
“Hey, Mr Anal Retentive,” the other marines sometimes mocked him during his tour of duty in Iraq. “Polished all the parts of your M16 for the fifth time today?”
He would smile. Because he knew it was order and attention to detail that helped keep you alive.
And now he smiled again. Because in exactly thirty-eight minutes - he had no doubt that the speeding Shinkansen would arrive at Yamagata Station precisely on time - he would be meeting his sister Clara again for the first time in more than twenty-five years.
Yet the same question kept nagging at him: Was he doing the right thing?
On his iPhone he had in orderly fashion saved the series of emails he and Clara had been exchanging for the past few months, since that beautiful day when he located her. Now he read some of them again. They were all in Korean - the language of their parents, and their only language in common. He hoped she had not laughed too much at all the inevitable mistakes in his writing.
There was the initial suspicion.
Dear Younger Brother,
Is this really you? I am so nervous. I have yearned so hard that we might meet again, but I never really expected it. I had given up trying to locate you. Thank God that you had more perseverance than me, and did not give up. I cannot tell you how often I have dreamt that we could meet again. I can remember our last time together, before our parents separated. It was in our garden at Recife. Do you remember that beautiful garden, with all the tropical flowers, where we once saw a toucan? I was thirteen and you were eleven. We were sitting together, and you were crying, because once again our parents were screaming at each other. I tried to comfort you, but you pushed me away. Then suddenly my mother came and grabbed me and put me in the car and drove off. I never saw you or our father again. But I don’t have only sad memories. I have happy ones too of our times together, when we were young and innocent and carefree. You must have happy memories too. Please tell me some of yours, and help me know that it really is you after all these many years.
Luiz did not have happy memories of his childhood. Their parents had left Seoul for Brazil before he was born, and had wandered from home to home before settling in the northeastern city of Recife. There they launched their own women’s fashion business, importing cheap textiles from Korea and sewing them into clothing. But they were forced to work long hours for little return, and increasingly the marriage came under strain.
Clara and Luiz, both born in Brazil, and named after popular local singers, bore much of the brunt of their parents’ misery.
“I still love all the beautiful Brazilian music,” was all that Luiz could think to tell her. “I often listen to it. I have many happy memories of that. And the big Recife carnival every year.” What else could he say?
He flicked through to Clara’s next email and began to read, but was interrupted by the sight of an elderly man walking slowly through their carriage. He appeared to be some kind of Oriental priest, with long white hair and a thin beard. He was dressed in a flowing white robe, fastened around the waist by a long red cord and tied at the bottom around each leg, like old-fashioned pantaloons. Above the robe, on his upper body, he wore a blue and white check waistcoat with long billowing sleeves. His feet were clad in white socks and a pair of straw sandals.
In one hand he carried a long, curved stick, which he used to steady himself as he walked through the speeding train. In the other he clutched what appeared to be some kind of giant, spiral conch shell.
Luiz watched in fascination as the man stopped right by him and put the end of the shell to his lips and blew. A haunting, hollow, trumpet-like sound emerged, and seemed to linger in the air like mist.
But then Luiz’s wonder turned to horror as the man took the shell from his lips, lowered it and slowly turned. He was now looking straight at Luiz.
He began gesticulating in a loud and deep voice, waving the shell in the air, and sometimes pointing it straight at Luiz, almost in some kind of accusatory fashion.
Luiz looked around. From his seat by the window he could not see many other passengers. But those he could see had now all turned to stare straight at him.
“What’s this about?” he muttered.
But then the man stopped shouting, and for what seemed like a long time he stood in silence, staring straight at Luiz. With his bulging eyes and protruding forehead he looked like a gnome, or like Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings.”
Finally he blew on his conch shell one more time, and then he turned away, and slowly walked on, leaving Luiz shaken and confused in his seat.
The speeding train had just emerged from another tunnel. Luiz turned to his neighbor, the sarariman. “Do you speak English?”
The man put down his chopsticks and raised his right hand. With thumb and forefinger he formed a gap of about an inch. “A little.”
“What was all that about? Who was that man?”
“That man? He is yamabushi.”
“Yamabushi? What’s that?”
“Yamabushi? Yamabushi is mountain spiritual man.”
“Mountain spiritual man?”
“And mountain worrier.”
“Worrier. Fighting man.”
“You know Dewa Sanzan?”
Luiz shook his head.
The man pointed out the window, to the high peaks. “Dewa Sanzan - that mean three mountains of Dewa. Dewa - it is old name for Yamagata. Very famous. Very spiritual mountains. Many spiritual men and women living there. Like yamabushi. Big worriers. Many strange ceremonies. Do strange things.”
“But what was he shouting at me?”
“He say you have big adventure in Yamagata.”
“Big adventure? What did he mean?”
The man shrugged. “Maybe he real yamabushi. Maybe he just from Yamagata tourist office. I don’t know.”
“Big adventure? What sort of adventure? Why me?”
The man shrugged for a second time. “Maybe spiritual adventure. I don’t know. Maybe joke. Maybe he from Yamagata tourist office. He think you speak Japanese. You look Japanese.”
“I’m American. But my parents were Korean.”
“You know big earthquake in northern Japan? And tsunami. Much damage.”
“Yes, of course. It was terrible. Devastating.”
“So now tourists no come northern Japan. They scared. Maybe nuclear radiation. So tourist office trying very hard. That man - maybe he real yamabushi, maybe tourist office.” He shrugged for a third time, as if that settled the matter. He turned back to his bento lunch and his baseball magazine.
Luiz wanted to learn what sort of spiritual adventures people had in Yamagata. And what did mountain warriors do in twenty-first century Japan? But it seemed pretty clear his neighbor did not did not wish to engage in further conversation.
As it happened, he had been concerned when he learned that Clara lived in northern Japan. He had been as shocked as anyone when for days he had been riveted to the television, watching with horror the ghastly images of all the destruction caused by the surging tsunami. And then soon afterwards came the reports of radiation leaks from the nuclear power plants at Fukushima.
It turned out that Yamagata, further north of Fukushima, had not been badly affected by the quake, although Clara said in one email that a row of books and some cups fell from shelves. In any case, the Shinkansen had passed through Fukushima Station about an hour earlier and everything seemed to be standing and in order.
He looked out the window. That strange man, shouting and blowing his ridiculous conch shell, had startled him.
He did not like that. He liked life to be straight and predictable. He considered following him down the train to demand what sort of adventure he could expect. But that was impossible without a translator.
No, probably it was all just some kind of silly tourist stunt.
He took a few deep breaths and then returned to the emails on his iPhone.
Our mother took me back to Korea. Her family were there. But they were not well off, and you can imagine that they weren’t happy to see us. They didn’t want me. Do you know how unhappy I was? I wished I could go back to Brazil. I wanted to see you and our father again. I wanted us all to be together again. But one day our mother said you had left Brazil and she heard you were in Los Angeles, but she didn’t know where. Is that true? I was desperate to get out of the house. I was sleeping in a tiny room with my mother, and her family treated me like their servant. So I married the first man who smiled at me. He was a Korean living in Japan. He and his mother ran a small restaurant in Osaka serving bulgogi and kalbi and other Korean dishes. Little brother, don’t you just love Korean food. I’m sure you do. You weren’t born in Korea, but still it’s in your blood. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law was never happy with my cooking. She was forever insulting me. And then we didn’t have children, and she blamed me for that as well. And my husband always took the side of his mother in all our quarrels. After a few years of marriage I followed our mother’s example and fled. I came here to Yamagata in the north of Japan. Far away from Osaka. Dear Little Brother, I am so anxious to hear about your life. Is it true that you went to live in America? What happened next? Are you married?
Luiz looked out the window of the train at more snow-capped mountains. The reunion was getting nearer. He was feeling tense again. Why did she ask all those questions? Was she suggesting he had a problem?
Yes, after their father’s repeated business failures he took Luiz with him to Los Angeles. But his business ventures failed there too, as did his liver, and he died when Luiz was in his late teens. It seems their mother, too, died around the same time, back in Korea.
No, Luiz had never married. He had had girlfriends, but then invariably something went wrong - usually he grew dissatisfied with the girl, or he became suspicious of her motives - and the relationship fizzled out.
Little Brother, you mentioned in one of your emails that you were in the army. Tell me more. Tell me lots more. Sometimes I dream that a handsome man in a uniform will come on a big white horse and carry me away. Maybe it is you I am dreaming of.
Why was she saying things like that? Yes, he had been in the military. He served in Iraq. Until the events that forced him to resign. The incident that got raised by a politician and written about in the newspaper. The events that still caused him intense bitterness. The events that would have brought deep shame to his family, if he had a family. So he wasn’t going to tell her about it. Keep dreaming, Big Sister.
Did he really want to find his sister? At one point he had convinced himself - living alone in Los Angeles, forced out of the military, alone and bitter, rediscovering his Korean heritage - that nothing would make him happier than to locate her. That was why he had started the long process of tracking her down.
But at the same time he often wondered if he wasn’t just playing some sort of game with himself. An activity to fill in his increasingly empty days. How was he ever going to find a woman called Kim, the same surname possessed by a fifth of the Korean population? Anyway, he decided, she would almost certainly have married, and, though Korean women didn’t always take their husband’s surnames, she could be anywhere in the world. Who knew what her name might be?
So it was a happy surprise when a distant relative passed on some details about her, probably living in Japan. And that was when he suddenly turned scared. Did he really want to meet her? His life was pretty settled, even if he had just been forced to quit the military and was working as a lowly paid assistant at a local hardware store. Why introduce some unpredictability? He had brought shame to his family. Mightn’t she just disown him?
And then he would curse himself for his nervousness.
Until one day came the email that convinced him to travel from Los Angeles to Yamagata.
You told me that you are always restless and unsettled and have become a bit of a hermit. I think I am the same. It is in the family blood. I don’t have many friends. And to tell the truth, I get very lonely. So when you told me that you were going to church, and had found an enormous peace, I decided to try it. And what do you know, but by a wonderful coincidence a new church started in Yamagata recently, aimed especially at Koreans. I have been going there regularly, and like you I have found a great peace. Before that most of my social activities revolved around a Korean group. It is complicated, but in Japan a lot of the Koreans are divided into two groups, those affiliated with the North and those affiliated with the South. My husband was part of a social group supporting the North, and so even after I left him and moved to Yamagata I continued as a member of that group, joining in their social activities. But I find much more satisfaction in the church, so now I have left that group. Thank you Little Brother for telling me about Jesus and His love for us.
Luiz looked up. The train was slowing. An announcement in English said their arrival at Yamagata Station was imminent. Already many of the passengers were on their feet, hauling luggage from the overhead storage bays. It seemed Yamagata Station was the destination for a majority of them.
The train came to a halt. Luiz grabbed his suitcase and joined the line of people moving slowly out of the carriage and onto the platform.
Then, with a combination of apprehension and excitement, he edged forward with the throng, towards the ticket barrier and towards the reunion with his long-lost sister.
* Read More
Click on image for more details.
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The Maria Kannon
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