The Last Ninjas
Indecision lurks in every crack of the alleyway paving. Mud pools, like rusted silver amalgam, fill stone-stained cavities, and my craving for Black Panther’s secrets rises from within them like methane gas over a thousand hot springs on a chilly winter’s morning.
I’m standing near a pile of garbage, and the stench of decomposing food plugs my nostrils. For a moment my breath morphs into a moth; I have to catch it before I can hold it.
I readjust my mask and check my tabi boots. The soles are coming away at the seams.
Black Panther’s out of reach. I’ll never be able to capture her tonight.
She isn’t named after a large melanistic cat for nothing. Master never made his opinion about anyone publicly known until one night when, after his wife’s sudden passing and more than a few sakés, he let slip that Black Panther was by far the superior roof runner and wall climber he’d ever encountered.
“Fathter even than Mathter,” he lisped, watching a piece of snot dangling over the rim of his saké glass.
Black Panther salutes me at the other end of the alleyway, twenty meters away, at least. As fast as her hand comes up, it goes down, and a smoke bomb shell explodes in a blinding flash and a clap of thunder. Its impact sends two cracks running on either side of the public housing building walls. It sounds like a million firecrackers being lit simultaneously, and the force rips away fragments of brick and mortar like worn cloth. Windows rattle in their frames like cages sheltering rabid monkeys.
Head down, I crouch, waiting for the dust to settle. Black Panther vanishes in a five-meter radius of black smoke. I look up and search for her on the rooftops once more, but all I can see is a bra and a dusty coat slow dancing on the wrought iron balcony railing of a bachelor’s flat three storeys up.
It’s worth mentioning that Master, in his drunken stupor on that particularly humid evening in the izakaya—eyes now red and swollen like rabbit fannies in mating season—said that Black Panther was by far the most innovative ninja he’d ever come across. Only his words came out as “Black Panther is by far … by far … the craftietht out of the whole thorry lot of you.”
It was apparent that Master was over his wife’s death within forty-five minutes after the funeral. The words he spoke also meant that morale was at its lowest point during training for at least a month afterwards.
It’s bloody hard work being a ninja. Balancing two bamboo-woven pails filled with hot chicken broth on a piece of bamboo three meters long over your shoulders is strenuous, to say the least, especially if you have to jog five-hundred steps to get to the top of a temple, only for the monks to throw fruit at you and complain that they wanted miso soup. That breaks your spirit like boiling water dissolves skin. But having heard Master utter those words was far worse than the Hot Water Run. Hell, it was worse than walking the Snake Pit without wearing boots.
It wasn’t long after that when Master was assassinated. Tiger Claw found him in his rock garden, face-down in a fish pond. Master’s beloved koi were already nibbling away at his lips and eyelids. Tiger Claw also found a black, five-pointed shuriken that ripped to shreds Master’s oesophagus.
Tiger Claw, the show-off, I should add; Tiger Claw, always the first to show up at training; always helping Master taking out and replacing equipment in the garden shed (although it was obvious that he preferred handling the lighter items, such as the tatami mats and wooden daggers); Tiger Claw, the prat.
He also had this annoying habit of faking injury until the day Black Panther poured some of that hot water over his ‘sensitive feet’. That shut him up for a few weeks. In fact, I don’t think we heard a word from him again because it wasn’t long after that when Tiger Claw was assassinated in similar fashion (not in a rock garden but on a romantic stroll in the park with his lover, Bear Trap).
Then it was Bear Trap’s turn; then Green Mamba’s.
You get the picture.
We are the only ones left, Black Panther and I.
A street vendor appears at the other end of the alley. A lone midnight moonbeam breaks through the clouds overhead like a spotlight. He clears his throat, and even through the haze settling over the rubble I notice his discomfort—no blame there; judging by the thick scar that runs over his left cheek and down the side of his neck, I’d say he’s seen more than his fair share of what goes on here at night, or, to be more specific, who goes down in downtown Osaka at midnight.
The old man’s pushing his cart with one hand. Steam covers his stainless steel pot like a phantasmal lid, and noodle soup spills over the edge every time one of the wheels go over a bump. With his other hand he’s stroking his beard, white and tangled.
When the vendor spots me, he lowers his gaze and slows down in the hope, I guess, that I wouldn’t be here when he eventually reaches this side of the alleyway. He comes within five meters and looks up.
I, Red Spider, am not there—I’m scaling the smoother of the two walls, twelve feet above him.
The old man doesn’t look up, which is a good thing because the bra on the balcony railing blows into my face. The coat sleeves flap in mock applause.
The street vendor walks away, shaking his head. “Hot noodle soup, hot noodle soup,” he wheezes, “If you want blood, you’ve got it.”
art by Craig Hopson
words by Ramon Ramirez