They call me Yasuke here in this foreign land of short, almond-eyed people. Being a slave, I dare not contradict them. By the grace of Allah, these people find some novelty in me, and so esteem me better than my Jesuit master, Alessando Valignano. Perhaps they will buy me from the Jesuit. I would be far from home, but I would be far from home regardless. And the mule prefers the bug bites in Spring to the bug bites in Summer.
My new tongue has not improved much. I doubt they would think better of me were I so fluent in their tongue; no more than the Jesuits think better of me for my mastery of their tongue. And yet I speak with more tongues than they, and not so falteringly as others so split between tongues. Valignano does not suspect how many tongues with which I may speak. If he did, he might well beat me for presumed insolence. The gnat whines at the ear of greater creatures, thinking the ear insolent in its size. And my back stings with the bites of this Jesuit gnat.
By the strength lent by Allah, I endure.
Lord Nobunaga must think well of me, however, for he gifted me generously a chest of copper coins, and all for the sake of the novelty of my dark skin. He thought it some sort of trickery at first. He bid me doff my clothes, head to waist, and his servants scrubbed at my chest. In vain, it was, and so Nobunaga was pleased. The Jesuits were pleased, too, and commandeered the coins for the works of their God. I was not sad to see the coins go. It was a trifling amount compared to the riches of the Caliphate. Moreover, no amount of wealth might buy me my freedom from these infidels. But as Allah sees fit, I abide.
Presently, we ride to Kyoto on a long road. Valignano is a fool, as are his followers, but they have about them an escort of samurai. This is a pretty land, as unique of feature as its people, and I admire its beauty. The plum trees are especially pretty. Yet, I feel misplaced among this infidel splendor. Though much honored, I am still a foreigner among these small people. More so than even the Jesuits, despite their idiotic faux pas and petty squabbles of conversion.
Even among the Jesuits I am an outsider.
We camp for the night beneath a copse of maples, around a fire. I sleep apart from my Jesuit travelers. We have been warned of bandits, and so I keep my hand ready upon the sword which Lord Nobunaga gifted me. I sleep lightly, dappled by the pale light of the moon as it peers between the branches like the face of a houri. My Jesuit brothers sleep well, for I hear them snoring. The samurai, too, sleep well. I cannot sleep. This land entices me to prayer, for Allah made this land too, though I know not why its people are infidels. The wellspring from which they sprang conceals its truths with its lovely mists, or perhaps their land reveals other truths of Allah which are not known to us in Istanbul.
I pray in the direction of Mecca. I hope Allah does not begrudge me the late hour. I can never pray when Valignano is awake, for he admonishes me severely for the practice. He berates the people here, too, and despises their religion of the Buddha. Why Nobunaga has offered him samurai for protection, I know not. Perhaps he wishes to protect me. But I need no earthly protection, for I have Allah. And Allah restrains my hands from choking the life from Valignano.
Prayer often offers me comfort, and reawakens my faith, instilling strength for my daily suffering. It is the light guiding me through this unending darkness. The shadows fly at the words exulting Allah.
Yet, when I rise again I realize that the moon no longer shines on my face. Rather, a giant shadow looms over me, the moon at its back.
“Hello, brother,” a voice growls. It is like the bones of a thousand sinful men grinding beneath the millstone. “Why do you share fire with these tasty creatures? Let us make a feast of them beneath the moon.”
The crackling of the campfire flares at the suggestion, and I see a three-eyed man with dark black skin and horns such as a bull on his broad head. He is taller than even I and reminds of a demon or djinn. I believe such a creature is called an “oni” in this land.
“Speak, little brother,” he growls. “Or do you claim them all for yourself?”
His breath stinks of rotten meat, and his voice is edged like a scimitar with challenge.
“I am not of your kin,” I confess, still clutching the sword at my side and ready to draw it against this infernal creature. I stand up, slowly, and find that I am two heads shorter than the oni. “I am a man. But I will fight like a demon if you attempt to harm me.”
The oni squinted his three eyes, the third eye in the center of his forehead. “Yes,” he says. “I see my mistake now. Far too small to be my kin. And already cooked, by the look of your flesh.”
“I am a Moor,” I say. “From faraway.”
“A rare meat, then,” the oni says. “I shall savor you.”
He reaches for me with clawed fingers. I unsheathe my sword, clumsily. I have not had the practice of its uses yet, though I The oni pauses, and withdraws his hand. But not because of my blade. He sniffs and frowns.
“You have the stink of a foreign god about you,” he says.
“Allah—may he ever have mercy—claims my soul,” I say, or as well as I might in the foreign tongue. “If I die here, or anywhere else, it is by his will.”
The oni grimaced, his large white fangs grinding within his mouth.
“A foul stench,” he says. “I do not care for it. It fouls your soul, little black man. A foreign god in my lands, and a foreign god in your heart.”
I nearly struck out at him for the blasphemy. “Allah is no foreigner in any land or heart,” I say. “For he made all, including you, demon.”
The oni laughs, insolently scratching his loins beneath a skirt of flayed skin.
“But he smells of other winds and other waters. I do not like his smell. It is arid. Stagnant. It reeks of death, but not such as there is pleasure in it. Only a wild, exultant zealotry which I care not for.” He pointed to the Jesuits. “No different, I suppose, than the smell of the god on those hairy little men.” He sniffed some more, leaning closer to me, his foul breath enveloping me. “But there is a more interesting scent beyond the gods that claim the lot of you. A smell of many other gods. Faint, but spicy, and not so lost as you would wish them to be. Gods grown in more interesting lands. Lands more honest to their gods than whatever place you now call home. Better gods. Truer gods. Gods displaced by this foul being that claims you like a spider a butterfly.”
“You speak blasphemies!” I say, readying my blade.
The oni turns away, indifferently. He chuckles, lumbering toward the edge of the copse.
“I will not partake of this feast,” he says. “There is already a feast taking place: a feast of fools, and your soul is being shared among them. What will be left of you when they have finished gnawing your soul with their many petty little mouths?”
Laughing, the oni fades into the gathering mist, vanishing like a shadow beneath the awakening day. His voice growls faintly one last time.
“All that will be left will be your dark black skin, and by this will you be known. By nothing else…”
I stand in the ensuing silence, shaken. After a long moment, I sheathe my sword—fumbling a little, and, so, loudly. The sibilance wakes Alessando Valignano.
“Yasufe?” he says, scowling at me. “Make no more noise, for the sake of God! Or I will thrash you for your stupidity.”
“My apologies,” I say, bowing my head.
Valignano grumbles, then adjusts his robe and turns over, sleeping on his side. “Dim-witted animal…” he mutters.
My rage finds me but a moment, as a djinn unleashed from a bottle, and I wish to draw my sword again and drink blood as any demon would. But I let the spark extinguish. Left alone once again to the silence of the forest, I think about gods and demons, of man and meaning, of tongues and truths.