The Samurai by Larry Lefkowitz

The epiphany seized Sondheim at breakfast. The morning after he had seen, or rather dozed in part through, the Japanese movie on television. Scenes had flitted through his dreams and he was still in a vaguely Japanese mood as he descended to breakfast – or what he thought would be breakfast. There was none. To his query as to why not, his wife was dismissive. “My morning run,” she said; her white running shoes flashed briefly in the burst of sunlight before the door closed.

Sondheim stared at the spot where his plate of grapefruit should have stood. It was at that moment that the epiphany struck.  A pants-cutter might sigh at such a fruitful admission: a samurai would not. And in that pregnant moment Sondheim resolved to become a samurai, putting forever behind him his former philosophy exemplifying the Yiddish credo: “If I try to be like him, who will be like me?” Sweeping the imaginary dishes from the real table, he thrust his arm out in front of him in lieu of a sword. The arm, he resolved, would soon be replaced by a sword. His wife, had she been present, might have responded to his strange gesture by asking him impatiently just what he thought he was doing, but she had gone off on “her run.” There was thus, fortuitously, nothing to deter Sondheim from his purpose. Unbeknown to Sondheim then, such seemingly minor events auguring far greater significance were the stuff of which samurai legends were made.

Sondheim progressed slowly. His thinning hair he oiled excruciatingly, gathering it behind his head in a scanty imitation of the samurai bristle. And his sword (fortuitously found at a garage sale of a former army officer who had served in Japan)[1] he would brandish when his wife was at her group therapy sessions or when she was at her aerobic dancing sessions. He practiced sword drawings and swishes in front of his wife’s full-length mirror, at first sheepishly, but then with increasing ferocity. Sometimes he frightened himself with his ferocity, but gradually he became used to it, end even doted on it – a sure sign that he was progressing toward his goal, concomitantly with his increased skill in bowing. He was greatly assisted in both by watching Japanese epics (to the mystification of his wife). and reading the novel Shogun. He soon progressed beyond Shogun, reading every text he could find on the subject of samurais and swordsmanship.

Standing before his wife’s mirror, Sondheim concentrated on entering the state where his body and the sword he held became one. On entering that oneness in which he was the sword and the sword was he: the state of MUGA – ‘no ego’ or ‘no mind.’

“I see no opponent confronting me, and threatening to strike me,” Sondheim said boldly to his image in the mirror. I transform myself into my opponent and every movement he makes as well as every thought he conceives are felt as my own until the moment when I strike . . . I now have no sword, no body. I have achieved HONSHIN – ‘the original mind,’ or even SHIJIN – ‘the perfect man.’”

And, verily, the sword flew at the mirror, at himself in the mirror, and only at the last possible moment, applying KOTSONEN NENKI was Sondheim able to hold back his sword from shattering the mirror (for he would have had to explain it to his wife). He had returned to himself, to the sudden awakening of thought — ICHINEN – the instant in which he found himself standing sword in hand before the fallen enemy.

Each day Sondheim felt more and more a samurai. He applied himself with rigid discipline, for the first time realizing the full significance of the Yiddish, BREKHT ZIKH A RING,TSEFALT DI GANTZSE KEYT – “Break one link and the chain falls apart.” He learned to think never of defending but always of attacking, and of AI-UCHI – not thinking of coming out of the battle alive, free from the fear of death. “The samurai is always on the offensive, never on the defensive. The samurai holds the sword in both hands, leaving nothing for defense, striking the enemy with the full force of his being.”

He kept his sword, and his samurai outfit, from his wife — and certainly his sword practice. She was full of enough questions about what he did with his time. Sondheim did not feel that his becoming a samurai would be received by her with equanimity. Though also Asian in origin, it was hardly compatible with her occasional tea-leaves reading sessions. So while she was busy with treatment, terpsichore, or tea leaves, he was busy with training to become a samurai. Once, she returned home early when a session was cancelled, and he barely had time to throw himself out of HONSHIN, and his outfit and sword into a drawer. She caught a glimpse of the outfit (which was thrown last) and wondered whether he had developed a late-blooming fetish for dressing up as a woman. She would not confront him with it until she checked with her colleagues at the therapy session. They voted (by a slight majority) that she should not confront him unless the fetish became so pronounced as to interfere with their family life. When she stated that their sex life was not affected and even had improved lately, they decided unanimously that that condition had not yet been reached. No one, however, knew what “bushido” meant, a word which she reported he occasionally mumbled in his sleep. “Perhaps it is the name of his Japanese secretary he is having an affair with,” it was suggested. “He doesn’t have a secretary, Japanese or otherwise” she replied. His wife had been urging him for some time to participate in their sessions, and he had promised he would. Once he decided to become a samurai, he found the strength to refuse. He had put such passive things behind him.

Freud had been his hero: now he seemed weak and indirect. Action and instinct now governed Sondheim. “The sword is mightier than the id,” coined he, and made a mental note that after his first victory he would have his blade so engraved. He repeated such formulae together with others taken from the masters: “the sword should act with a will of its own,” “the sword is the soul of the samurai.”

At work, too, Sondheim was no longer passive. He cut his patterns with bold strokes. He looked his supervisor in the eye. The union wanted him to become a worker’s representative. He refused. All his time he needed to become a samurai. He knew that the moment would come when he would have to prove himself.

The moment, when it came, was unexpected (as is the tendency with such moments).

Sondheim strode down the street like a conqueror – no, like a man sublimely aware of his own invincibility. He was beyond his wife and her group psychiatrists, beyond pattern-cutting. He sensed his sword in its scabbard as another man might sense the pulsing of his blood. Sondheim was a samurai.

The mugger, coming from behind, took him by surprise. Sondheim, at the last moment, perhaps due to his training, sensed the blow coming and tried to dodge it, reaching with both hands for the hilt of his sword.[2] But before he could draw it forth, before he could throw himself into HONSHIN, the blow struck. Just before the blackness enveloped him, Sondheim had a flash of his samurai fleeing down the street – his wife and her fellow-therapists in full pursuit – as a far away voice admonished him with the amended Yiddish maxim: “Better an ounce of luck than a pound of AI-UCHI.”[3]

 

[1] Later, when he was more erudite on the subject of swords, he realized that his sword dated from the Muromachi Period, which produced swords of less quality than those of the Kamakura Era, but still possessed a strength and balance not to be sneezed at. He later learned that the sword had gotten lost  in shipment to a exhibition of Japanese artifacts at a museum in New York, the sword a “gift of Daniel and Hilda Weissberg, San Francisco,” which somehow got mixed up with a sword and other items loaned to the museum by the army officer.

[2] We cannot know if at this moment he pictured himself the heroic samurai Benkei who, according to legend, killed a giant carp which had swallowed his mother when she fell into a waterfall. Sondheim’s wife never knew that this was the reason that  “out of the blue” he lost his taste for gefilte fish. Nor that her urgings, “Nu, nu, eat” only served to remind him of the Japanese legendary monster, the Nu, slain by a samurai no less brave than Benkei.

[3]The previously mentioned Weissbergs, when they heard his story, with characteristic generosity agreed that his sword be buried with him.

 

Lefkowitz, Larry

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

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