Fiction / December 2013 (Issue 22)


Inclusion

by John Givens

Jirobei blindfolded the arsonist and led him down onto the dry riverbed.

Shogunate retainers watched from the embankment, hands stuffed into the sleeves of their winter robes. Behind them a crowd had gathered.

I'll show you something you haven't seen, Jirobei said. He was a huge fellow, half-again larger than normal men, and his massive badger-belly hung out over the wide leather belt he wore instead of an obi and strained the fabric of his kimono.

The arsonist waited with his head tilted off to one side, like someone listening for distant music. He had burned down the home of a moneylender, intending to destroy both the account book and the man; and in the shogun's city of wooden buildings with paper doors and rice-straw floor mats, there could be only one punishment for such a crime.

We know what you do, said the senior retainer.

Jirobei moved the arsonist onto a flat patch of hard sand for the better footing there. But you don't know how well I can do it.

Jirobei untied the arsonist's hands. Everybody walks on the same road, he said to him.

But it's the rare man who knows the date and time of his departure. Jirobei began stripping the robe off the arsonist's shoulders much the way a bridegroom might prepare his shy bride.

The arsonist said he needed a moment to compose himself, but Jirobei just loosened his sash knot then began pushing sash and robe down together until the wad of garments hung low on his hips.

Don't move, Jirobei said.

But I'm not ready…

Don't move.

Jirobei preferred a stiff blade, heavier than was common, and one with an oversized hilt thickened by a layer of horsehide held in place by a spiral of sinews wound on fresh then allowed to contract as they dried, creating grooves that improved the gripping surface and also added something of an aesthetic note.

Jirobei shoved up his own sleeves and used a white under-sash to tie them back out of the way.

The arsonist said he thought more might be learnt from his case, a cautionary lesson that would help others avoid the mistakes he himself had made. The world was changing. New times required new methods. He said he thought some kind of testament might be composed, the details of his malfeasance described in vivid language blazing with authenticity. Who knows the shame of crime if not the criminal? Who better feels the sting of remorse? He said he thought the credibility of such a document would more than compensate for the slight delay writing it would require…

But Jirobei dug in with his back foot and bent his knees. He raised his blade with both hands and waggled it back and forth as a timing-mechanism then drove forward off his plant leg, rotating his hips as he hit through, swinging across low and hard and flat, and with both arms fully extended at the point of impact so that the arsonist—a man loved by his wife despite the flaws in his character—flipped apart in a spray of entrails that flared out like a handful of flung eels.

That's a thing it's said can't be done to a standing man, Jirobei said. But as you have seen, I can do it.

The arsonist's wife was led away from the execution site by persons who understood that no woman should have to see such a spectacle. Jirobei watched her go, the offal at his feet steaming on the frozen sands of the riverbed.

The shogun's retainers stared down at the sundered corpse. What do you want?

Jirobei plucked up the hem of the arsonist's robe and wiped clean his blade. To be among those who enforce the laws of the shogunate.

The senior retainer knew his men feared and hated this pariah executioner, a foul creature whose existence seemed to impinge upon them and blight their prospects. Impossible, he said. Blood flow had reached Jirobei's sandals. He made no attempt to evade it.

Don't ask for what can never be given!

The huge pariah remained as he was, ponderous, offensive, his heavy red arms hanging down like the skinned carcasses of slaughtered dogs.

Never! You have no family, no ancestor registry, nothing to certify you. The senior retainer gazed at the low white sky, at the bones of the trees on the opposite riverbank silhouetted against it. You're not even fully human. You have no name.

I'm called Jirobei. As you know.

Called by whom?

All who encounter me.

The retainers were samurai whose grandfathers had followed the way of the warrior but who had themselves become brazier-lovers, cushion-choosers, bureaucrats gone soft on the generosity of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Ask for something else, the senior man said.

There was nothing else Jirobei wanted. He told them it was his ambition to go inside buildings and ask questions and require answers.

Edo is becoming disorderly, Jirobei said. Scabbard-brushers brawl in the wineshops and alleyways, thieves waylay drunks, gamblers cheat the unwary. He studied the row of shogunate retainers hunched like jackdaws on the wintry riverbank. I need permission to hurt malefactors wherever I find them. Permission to hurt artisans and tradesmen and farmers. Hurt samurai.

Not samurai.

Samurai gone rogue then.

Not them either.

Jirobei said nothing.

There's no person in this world who would ever approve that. None!

I can't serve you if I'm not allowed inside your buildings.

Why do you care about a city that despises you?

I don't care about it. I care about compliance.

There's no reason for you to pursue such matters.

There is no reason for anything, Jirobei said. Other than in the doing of it.

***

One heavily laden branch of cherry blossoms hung over the brushwood fence that separated his cottage from the rendering grounds. The shell-pink cloud glowed in the misty light with an ethereal beauty, and Jirobei closed his eyes to feel the flowers more intensely, the morning calm broken only by the occasional screams of sick horses or spavined oxen as the tallow-makers engaged in their preparations.

The shogunate had granted part of what the huge pariah requested. He carried a hemp rope with which to bind wrongdoers and a heavy oak cudgel to bludgeon them. Jirobei strolled through the shogun's metropolis wearing a new cotton kimono with a pattern of hibiscus flowers, a bold design he considered flattering to his physique. Spring had invigorated Jirobei. He felt the sap of anticipation rise up through him. It left him agitated, unsettled, stimulated, at one with the new green of leaves unfurling on the city's hardwoods and the dewy freshness of fern shoots sprouting in the moorlands.

Quelling urban miscreants was not without risk. During an altercation with a gang of street toughs, Jirobei had been slashed in the face. He had subdued them, cracked their necks one by one and left them stacked like cordwood ready for collection. But their knives had been unclean and his wounds had healed badly. Scars furrowed the huge pariah's ruddy visage now, and the rictus crimping his upper lip meant that forming words required effort.

Friends had informed the arsonist's widow that her husband's executioner had himself been assaulted. The news brought her no comfort. She still wept easily, still awoke in the middle of the night trembling, still cowered at every sharp noise or sudden shadow.

Unlike her, Jirobei had no friends. But he bathed daily in celebration of the season of cherry blossoms, picked his teeth clean with bamboo slivers, scraped the dirt and dried blood out from under his fingernails and wiped himself carefully each time after shitting.

Everywhere were instances of regeneration to be embraced and extended; and the huge pariah welcomed them all, after his bath sitting naked in the spring sunlight and combing out his long black hair with a hand-cut boxwood comb then shaping his coif with camellia oil—applied too heavily—he knew, but the pleasure of the scent was difficult to resist, as was the satisfaction of using an extra-long binding cord to hold his topknot in place: bright pink in honour of the season.

The arsonist's widow understood that Jirobei was drawing nearer. Friends had been waylaid near the ward gate and interrogated. He has nothing better to do, they told her. Don't worry about him, they said, but she did.

Jirobei was the product of a misogynist's spasm. His father, a large and taciturn man, was skilled at buckling the knees of opponents and throwing them aside. In his prime, he was seldom bested although his manoeuvers were praised only grudgingly; and as he aged and slowed, younger men learned to evade the grasp of his arms and dance around him until a weak spot in his defence was exposed. He fell hard sometimes. His ears bled, his sight dimmed, he tasted sand; and those watching greeted his defeats with mocking laughter.

Jirobei's father had washed ashore as a youth. He was larger and paler than the people living there, and he spoke a language no one had ever heard before, guttural and harsh and leaving flecks of spittle on the lips. Because of this, carnal access was restricted to members of the despised class of non-human pariahs. This humiliation created in Jirobei's father a hatred of his wife and other women. Only the men he fought against earned acceptance in his eyes, and only the moment of impact as two naked male bellies slammed violently together gratified him.

His first child—a small, sickly boy with his mother's vulpine features—had died after a year spent swaddled in hemp cloths that stank of urine. But his second boy was large and sanguine and greedy at the teat. The old grappler studied Baby Jirobei as he grew. He watched for any trace of his mother and found none. It was as if this infant had been formed wholly from his own male seed, as if he had merely used his mother as a chute, with nothing of her adhering to any part of him, other than a faint stench from the bloody lubricant of his birth slime.

When the boy Jirobei was old enough to totter about on his fat little legs, his father taught him how to unbalance other children by delivering sudden blows to the side of the head; and when the boy's legs became strong enough to support him and his growing belly in more aggressive manoeuvers, he showed him how repeated thrusting chops delivered to the throat of an advancing child would force that child upright, limit his ability to counterattack and ultimately topple him. And when little Jirobei—hardly little even at three and four years of age—was old enough to appreciate subtlety, his father taught him how to come in at unexpected angles, how to feign vulnerabilities that he did not in fact have and how to drop down onto a defeated opponent as if by accident and surreptitiously gouge his eyes or crush his testicles or perhaps chew off part of an ear, doing it in such a manner that those watching would not notice while making certain that the screeching victim knew it was as intentional as it was unnecessary. Maybe one day you are fighting him again, his father had said. Maybe he is dreading what you might do.

Despite Jirobei's new authority, permission to enter residences had not been granted although workshops and stables and quays were made available to him, as were the streets and alleys and bridges of the shogun's metropolis. Culprits sometimes hid themselves, and Jirobei learned to savour opportunities for surveillance. He would linger just outside the open widows or doorways of the homes of city-dwellers and watch as they occupied themselves with petty crafts and household chores. He would smile benignly as women and men chatted together or dozed alone. He mused on the way they drank wine and ate dumplings, the way they dandled their children, the way they laughed and sang, chanted sutras and whispered curses, bathed, wept, pissed, squabbled and fucked—and he almost felt that he too might one day do such things.

Despite warnings from her friends, the widow was unprepared for the evening when Jirobei's scarred red face appeared above her fence, risen like a blood-filled moon. She slammed the door closed, closed the rain shutters, too, and knelt gasping in her darkened interior, too afraid even to flee.

Jirobei began visiting her neighbourhood frequently. He chose odd moments and unanticipated vantage points. He followed the widow when she went shopping and tried to see the world as she saw it. At the vegetable market, he asked what she had bought there then bought it, too. He did the same thing at the fishmonger's. One afternoon, he found her alone in a small shed making candles.

The widow looked up from feeding the flames heating her wax pot.

Jirobei suspected it was the shape of him blocking the doorway that terrified her, and he sank down into a squat, his fat red thighs spreading apart as he levered up his immense badger-belly and rolled it forward.

You have perhaps misunderstood the nature of mourning, Jirobei said.

It's not for you to decide…

Jirobei said nothing and then he said, Please. Dip your candles. Add the next layer.

The widow lowered the two hand-racks of dangling candles into the wax pot, holding them there as steadily as she could then lifting them straight up to form a fresh layer evenly.

Well. Then. A woman's husband dies. She feels lost, abandoned. Some men might try to take advantage of such a situation. To neglect to do so might seem like an anomaly to them. Jirobei savoured the elegant word on his mutilated lips, and he pronounced it again with exaggerated care: An anomaly.

You're no man.

Jirobei smiled at her crookedly. That layer is now dry.

A foul creature like you is not allowed…

That layer is dry. Dip your candles.

The widow did as she was told. But she also began to describe aspects of her husband's character she thought exculpatory. Good deeds. Thoughtful remarks. Simple observations others had found useful. Poignant moments shared. Gifts. Alms. Insights on the true nature of things…

He was a criminal.

The widow defended the expectations of the marital quilts. She described the pleasure of snuggling close together during the frigid dawns of winter and that of sprawling naked and exposed in the hot darkness of a summer night…

A criminal, the huge pariah said again, his voice like that of a man calling into a room he's not sure is really empty; and he rose to his feet, the monstrous shape of him filling the entryway even as he held himself scrupulously outside the shed. And you aren't, he added. But can that mean you believe you won't also suffer?

***

No rain fell.

Dung from dogs and dray beasts dried in the sun and rose in billowing clouds of faecal dust that settled over the city in a noxious yellow miasma. It was an awful season, a time for recriminations and regrets. Residents ventured outdoors with dampened cloths wound around their faces, leaving only narrow slits for their red-rimmed eyes. Duties were neglected, punishments cancelled, celebrations allowed to wither into insignificance. Drought led to contagion; corpses accumulated and at the height of the worst of it, the arsonist's widow abandoned her home and fled west.

Jirobei went after her. He wore a cuirass of his own manufacture, the imbricate of pink and purple leather strips studded with steel rivets and laced together with scarlet cords, the monstrous expanse of it curving out over the swollen bag of his badger-belly. As he walked, the pair of skirt flaps attached to the groin band of this cuirass swung apart, revealing flashes of his loincloth with the stub of his penis tucked inside, for Jirobei enjoyed the reluctance felt by those whom he encountered to acknowledge in any way the diminutive size of this organ.

The carry-sack slung over Jirobei's shoulder held bladed tools. Extra rice-straw sandals were attached to the groin-band of his cuirass. A water gourd also hung there, as did a slash knife removed from the hand of a man about to die. You won't need it, he'd told him. Others do the cutting in hell. Inside Jirobei's carry-sack was a large flask of camellia oil, the scent of which he alone seemed not to find cloying. A leather pouch contained various small items for personal use: an ear spoon and a cosmetic tweezers, pinch-scissors and a face razor and a needle. He had a focusing lens, a few sea-urchin spines still tipped with sufficient toxins, a claw-hook useful for working in tight spaces or doing impromptu dentistry, a shard of obsidian glass sharper than any knife and a flint and steel for starting cloudy-day pyres.

Jirobei also carried a collection of pretty seashells, a few loose amber beads and bits of orange coral drilled for stringing and a selection of cloisonné trinkets. He had a pair of lead bullets that he'd dug out of his own flesh himself and retained in commemoration of the accomplishment, a double-handful of keepsake teeth, strips of dried skin he'd configured into ornamental knots and the lacquered skull of a shrew-mole that had been decorated with archaic and mysterious glyphs for which he hoped one day to find a reader.

The gate-guard at Shinjuku New Station watched Jirobei's approach. He knew what he was, and he hated seeing him. He hated the massive belly shamelessly flaunted, hated the naked arms and shoulders and buttocks and thighs, hated the flat red face with its awful scarring; but most loathsome was the pariah's flamboyant hairstyle, the great folded excrescence of night-berry blackness grossly oiled and configured into an exaggerated display never seen before.

You're not permitted to stop here. The gate-guard carried a stabbing spear, and he held it at a provocative angle. Not to eat nor to rest. And certainly not to sleep overnight.

Jirobei halted in front of him. Each of the choppers and slicers in his carry-sack had been seated in a hemp-cloth pouch to muffle the rattle of metal against metal.

I seldom sleep much, Jirobei said, forming his words with care. But I always sleep well.

Journeys to the western mountain circuit started at Shinjuku New Station. Cheap inns and noodle stalls lined the road, as did the dray stables and brothels intended for the convenience of those heading out of the shogun's city. Carters and palanquin bearers sprawled at their ease on roadside benches or squatted near the metal-smith's forge, drawn by a male fondness for the occurrence of work; while from the windows of wineshops, pleasure-girls with loose sashes and blackened teeth offered salacious observations, claimed improbable kinships and called out promises and prices, not all of which were credible.

I respect the law, Jirobei said. And I acknowledge the requirements of those who administer it.

There had been a carp pond at Shinjuku New Station once, stocked with fry in the expectation of an effortless profit; but the pond had become choked with water-weeds, the young fish died, and now all that remained was a lush clotting of reeds, home to frogs and the snakes that hunted them.

A woman passed through here two days ago, Jirobei said. Travelling alone. Did she hire a palanquin for her journey?

What woman?

Jirobei shifted his carry-sack to the other shoulder. A woman who is travelling alone.

The dried reeds could have been collected and woven into the tough sheets used to surface tatami mats. But the disappointed fish-farmers didn't harvest them, and the reeds grew to the edge of the roadway and collapsed under the accumulation of their own weight.

No woman fit for you came this way.

Insects rose out of the dried reeds and danced in the slanting orange afternoon light. You don't understand, Jirobei said. He crossed over to the smith's furnace, and the men lounging there backed away with the awkward uncertainty of disturbed sheep.

Jirobei stood looking at the fire. Because you don't know me. He thrust one hand into the tossing flames at the forge mouth, and he held it there and held it there and then removed it.

The smith recoiled as if he himself had been burned, and the carters and draymen adopted the worried solemnity of men who may have to defend suppositions they no longer trusted.

You can live three ways, Jirobei said.

He held up his thick red hand, as if in confirmation of the linkage between what he did and what he experienced as being done.

You can be told of a thing like a flame and recognise what the words mean, how they fit together and so use your understanding as a guide. This is called the way of the learner of easy lessons. Such a person knows how to describe fire. And nothing more.

Or you can stand close to a flame and observe it with your own eyes. Study its colour, its urgency, the heat it provides, the shapeless shape of it in its wavering. And through such an effort come to know the value of flames. This is the way of the satisfied seeker. He can use flames but will never himself become part of any fire.

But then there's the third way. My way. To reach out and be burned by it. And only if you accept this third way can you understand the true soul of a flame. My way is the way of the traveller who always arrives. Always.

Arrives? Arrives? The gate-guard's voice cracked like a duck pelted by gravel. You aren't even allowed to be here!

Jirobei came back into the road. But I am. He went closer to him. I have permission.

The gate-guard adopted a defensive crouch, feet apart, knees bent, his eyes narrowed and his jaw working like that of a masticator struggling with a tough bit of gristle.

You're afraid, Jirobei said. But don't you understand that if I'd decided to harm you, it would have happened already?

The gate-guard opened his mouth to speak but no sound emerged.

You could be lying here dead on this dirt right now, Jirobei said. Your throat crushed. Your neck broken. Your head twisted off like a chrysanthemum bud. But perhaps you've already guessed as much. Perhaps I don't need to say it.

The gate-guard waited, his shoulders beginning to sag. She was on foot, he said.

Jirobei lifted the stabbing spear out of his hands. He examined the shaft, the socket collar, the shiny steel blade, and then gave it back to him. Do you have a wife? Compliment her when you get home. Touch her cheek. Praise her hair. Are you the father of a child? If so, then cuddle it tonight. Sing to it. And if your aged parents are still with you, ask them about their lives and listen to what they say, really listen. And be satisfied.

Jirobei stood with the gate-guard for a moment longer and then continued on through the hamlet and out onto the road west.

***

Low clouds crowded down over Little Grebe Lake. Misty drizzle erased the tops of the surrounding mountains. We don't go in bad weather, said the senior ferryman, but an oar boy who had not yet made a trip that day agreed to take the arsonist's widow across in a small skiff.

Faster because lighter, the boy declared. He pushed them out through the weedy shallows then applied himself to the stern oar, the thrust and pull action weaving a foam trail on the surface of the water like a writer inscribing shi then tsu. Some people are afraid to go on lakes during storms, he said. Particularly if they are unable to swim.

I'm unable to swim, said the widow, huddled within an oiled-paper cape.

As am I, said the oar boy. All the more reason to get across quickly.

But the wind rose up like a wild beast on its hind legs, and a pelting rain soon came striding down on them in great sweeping grey sheets. The widow crouched between the gunwales of the skiff. She looked back and spotted her pursuer on the path above the ferry quay, the ruddy bulk of him exposed to the rain, and watching her escape.

Probably it's not as bad as it could be, said the oar boy hopefully.

The skiff lifted and plunged and slapped against tossing waves, and the widow had the taste of both lake water and rain on her lips.

No standing up! the boy cried, struggling to maintain a steady rhythm with his stern oar.

No sudden moves!

The widow had no intention of moving at all. She had thought he wouldn't follow her but had also thought he might. She peered ahead through the murky wash of lake rain but could no longer see the far shore; and when she turned again to look behind her, the shore they had left was also obscured by low clouds.

Rain at sea is said to be much worse than lake rain, said the oar boy. His blade was breaking free in wave troughs now and flailing uselessly. So I guess there's some comfort in that.

All around them, the lake reared up into hills of water that dropped away. Departing waves re-arrived, and collapsing troughs splashed onto heaving surges as the sky's rain pounded down onto the lake's discontent, stirring up the wrath of water dragons that began coursing just beneath the surface in a braided frenzy of undulation. The boy clung to his stern oar with both arms now, less propelling the skiff forward than trying to avoid falling out of it. Probably it will blow over soon, he called to his passenger. Probably we've endured the worst of it.

But the lake shuddered again and rolled them sideways, and the skiff yawed to the point of capsizing. The sky burst open in a sudden rage of silver needles splintering downwards, and the slashing rain took on the scent of the bellies of the dragons that went roaring in the sky, too, so that the widow could only stare in wonder at the world tearing itself apart all around them.

Water crashed over the gunwales with each wave crest now. The widow took up the woven palm-leaf water scoop and began bailing. Is this right? She looked back to discover the boy squatting on his haunches and fearfully gripping the gunwales, his stern oar torn from its mounting cleat and washed away.

The skiff lurched and wallowed. Bright teeth like mirror flashes ripped open the low sky so that at each shock of sudden brilliance, the heaving slopes of lake water blazed and crashed together like immense knuckles and elbows. Can't you help? the widow cried. Waves splashed in faster than she could manage them. The binding edge of her water scoop failed, the whole thing unravelled, and she flung the useless wad of palm strips over the side only to have the next wave hurl it back in on her again. The widow looked around to find something else she could bail with then tore off her travel hat and began scooping out water, her face lashed with blinding rain, her hair soaked; and she was still digging like a madwoman emptying water out of a fresh grave when the skiff shuddered against a mud bank and lolled off to one side.

They dragged the skiff ashore and rolled it over then lifted its prow onto the trunk of a wind-felled tree and crawled under it. They sat far apart and stared out at the rain roiling the lake's back, smashing open creases of spume with each blow.

That stern oar is gone, the boy lamented. It will be impossible for me to return without it.

You'd consider going back out there?

Not now. He squatted with his arms wrapped miserably around his shins. Only that I have suffered a loss.

You have your life.

They'll charge me fifty coppers for that oar. Maybe more.

***

The arsonist's widow might have been awakened by the gentle murmur of wavelets lapping the shore, or perhaps by the warm fragrance of lake water shimmering in sunlight.

Jirobei had hiked all night to reach her, and he watched from the edge of the forest as she crawled out from under the overturned skiff and stood gazing out at the glassy surface of Little Grebe Lake. He would have liked to see it as she did, the green surface calm and lovely under a few pale clouds, the darker green of the cedar forests surrounding the lake on all sides; and he would have liked to describe his own thoughts about it to her. Large vessels and small ones plied the end-of-summer morning: fishing boats and passenger ferries and cargo carriers. Among them was a double-hulled load-hauler with a piebald ox on board, the huge beast snubbed to the aft transom and bellowing in distress.

Jirobei stayed within the tree shadows as the widow carried her bundle around to a sheltered cove. She pulled off her muddy robe and unwound her underskirt then waded out into the water, her nakedness like that of a thing peeled, like a small mammal stripped of its pelt, a bird plucked. He watched as she dried herself and sat on a rock in the sunlight, and what he felt was like the contentment of a proprietor.

Jirobei waited until she had put on a clean robe and set off again, and then he went down to the lake himself. Weeds torn out by the storm were aligned in bunches along the waterline like crops harvested. He rinsed out his robe the way she had done, took off his loincloth and rinsed it too. He hung both garments on the willow branches she had used and then waded out into the lake and washed himself. The stern oar bobbed in the debris of a backwash cove.

He dragged it ashore and then occupied a flat rock near the skiff, his immense red body heating in the morning sun.

The oar boy emerged from under the skiff and saw him. He didn't know what his presence meant, but he knew it meant something. What do you want from me?

Jirobei strolled over to where the boy waited. He grasped the near edge of the long, slender boat and with a mighty heave flipped it back over onto its keel. He dragged the prow around so that it was facing out into the lake.

You can't just go around naked, the boy cried.

Jirobei retrieved the stern oar and laid it against the flange of its mounting bracket but did not bother with the shredded ropes that hung there, for the flange block had worked loose and would not support the weight of the oar without being pounded back into place.

They'll be wondering if you drowned, Jirobei said.

I don't know what you want.

Jirobei studied him. What do you want?

The boy couldn't look at him. Nothing.

Not to go home?

To go home then.

Your wife will be worried.

The terrified oar boy shook his head. I don't have a wife.

Your mother then.

What do you want from me?

Jirobei continued to observe him. Where's she going?

The boy glanced at him and then quickly lowered his eyes. Who?

Your passenger. From yesterday.

I don't know.

Don't say that to me.

The oar boy couldn't look at the huge pariah's naked body, his immense belly hanging out in a great swollen mass of muscle and fat, his chest and shoulders and thighs spangled and hatched all over with pit-scars and ridge-welts from stab wounds and slash wounds, like a map charting the impact chance had inflicted on him; yet he also didn't dare turn away so he said, There was a storm. We just washed up…

You just washed up.

The oar boy stood with his hands gripping the fabric of his robe, holding the front of it bundled closed. There's a small landing. Farther up the shore. It leads to the road into the barrier mountains. We couldn't find it because of the storm.

All right. Jirobei gazed out over the placid green surface of the lake. Get a rock.

What?

Get a rock. A large one.

A rock?

A rock. One about the size of your head. Jirobei was watching him now. And bring it to me.

***

The widow confronted Jirobei late the following day. He had set up a solitary bivouac beside a wayfarers' shrine deep in the mountains, and he told her he'd been waiting for her.

You didn't know I'd come looking for you.

I knew you'd relent.

You didn't know anything of the kind. She stayed where she'd stopped, her carry-sack hooked over her shoulder. You just think you do.

Jirobei had stripped off his robe and hung it on a protruding pine branch then seated himself in the middle of the road like a massive and objectionable Buddha. But you did come. Here you are.

Because you aren't allowed, said the arsonist's wife. So I guess what I need to do is say that to you.

And haven't you?

So that you hear it.

Jirobei's body in the gathering darkness was coated with a coppery sheen of perspiration, and his immense black coif was so heavy with oil that it hung down onto the swollen muscle and fat of the back of his neck and left greasy streaks there.

You don't understand me, Jirobei said.

I don't care about you. Maybe that's also why I came back. To say it to your face.

You came back because you realised you were wrong about me.

The widow deposited her gear inside the wayfarers' shine but settled herself on the entryway stoop as if the huge naked creature sitting cross-legged in the middle of the road was just another feature of the landscape. All right, she said. I'm listening.

Twilight settled around them, and in the cool of the mountains, Jirobei told the arsonist's widow that her husband had committed an offense because it was in his nature, and he had done what he did because it was in his.

So no blame, Jirobei said. And no regrets for cutting him.

Jirobei told her it was his obligation to preserve public order. But he knew he could become a victim of hubris. And he yielded at times to moments of excess. It had therefore occurred to him that the nature of her husband's death was an injustice to her. He had had no right to have caused her such suffering. He said he wished to make amends.

And that's why you're following me?

You came back for me, Jirobei said.

To be done with it!

Jirobei had two rice cakes with wedges of pressed mackerel on top, and he gave them both to the arsonist's widow. He said he had heard doctrines he believed worth considering. It was not for him to speak of such matters, but unless she had objections he would. He himself was of course a non-human and therefore judged to be a creature without a soul. But he believed that to be true of all sentient beings. There was no individual soul. The idea was an error. Persons, pariahs, animals, fish, insects—all occupied a series of temporary expediencies. Flow was granular. Each instance mutated into the next. And although there was no other linkage connecting them together, the consistency of the fact of transformation was itself the necessary bond. To hold otherwise was to live in delusion. He told her that some believers credited the persistence of the soul as the mechanism that enabled the chain of rebirths from life to life, but in his view this too was mistaken. Every thing links to every other thing as it arises within the irrevocability of itself. No separate component is required.

The widow had finished one rice cake, and she sat with the second held in both hands.

She said she found such ideas difficult to understand. She asked if he had met others who shared his views.

All men to me are other. Jirobei told her that in the course of his duties, he often encountered fearful persons who would not see him as he drew nearer, who would not accept his presence even when he was very close.

Then, when my breath touches their cheeks, when my lips brush their skin, they in their terror can't fulfil their obligations to themselves.

The widow finished her second rice cake. Because they're afraid, she said.

But you came back. Didn't that mean she wasn't afraid of him?

It doesn't, the widow said. She came back because she knew he might hurt her wherever she was, and she had no way of preventing it.

And if he managed to reassure her in some manner that she credited?

She said that any relief she felt would be false since he could easily change his mind. She said she believed that he in his otherness might do her a fatal injury on a whim, but that he also might protect her from peril. And that both states might dwell within him so that the centre of each was at the centre of the other, and the edge of each extended to the edge of the other and no farther because there could be no space beyond for it to extend into.

Jirobei felt himself flooding with contentment. There's no centre, he said. Nor is there ever an edge.

All through that night Jirobei sat in the middle of the roadway and guarded the arsonist's widow as she slept peacefully inside the wayfarers' shelter. Had an army of ten thousand gibbering demons assaulted him, he would not have flinched. Had all the wasps and serpents and poison-toads of hell risen up around him in a great heaving cloud of annihilation, he would have remained an unmovable presence.

When the widow awoke the following morning, Jirobei had already departed.

On the entryway step was the skull of a small mammal, lacquered a rich hue and decorated with mysterious symbols. It was a gift. She kept it.

***

The arsonist's widow visited Jirobei on the day before his own execution. She was the only person to do so.

His crime was impertinence. It had not resulted from something he said or did but from something he had failed to do or say.

The huge pariah squatted in the gaol courtyard. A heavy iron chain that had once secured the anchor of a sailing ship from Europe tethered his neck to an iron cleat affixed to one of the foundation stones of the gaol, and he told her that the shogunate guards had asked him not to try to wrench it out for fear of damaging the structural integrity of the building itself.

And you said you wouldn't, she said.

It was kind of you to come. Jirobei looked at the patch of dirt between his fat red feet. I would never do anything that harmed the shogunate. His lips were unable to form the words well but she understood what he meant.

I wanted to bring you food but they said it wasn't permitted.

Much isn't permitted, Jirobei said.

Are you suffering?

About the right amount.

They said they're going to crush you.

Yes.

They said they've been gathering slabs of rock from the riverbed. A great mound has been collected.

It's not uncommon to wish to inflict pain on those you despise, Jirobei said.

The widow stood over him uncertainly. I'm sorry, she said finally; and Jirobei's round red face tilted up towards hers, his little eyes buried behind sweaty slabs of fat, and he smiled and told her he was grateful for her visit but it was time for her to leave. There may be questions if you seem too engaged, he said.

I don't know what to do, the woman cried.

You can't do anything.

I regret that I—

No. There's nothing to regret. Jirobei told her he had embraced the world's right to reject him and accepted his degradation. He smiled up at her shyly. Because it's a ladder.

The arsonist's widow told him there were occasions when she had sensed him nearby, like a grain of sand in a cauldron, a fleck of dust on a mirror, a speck of pollen drifting in the wind, but him, some part of him, something felt sometimes as a kind of compression of the moment so that what happened seemed to have finished before it began, and sometimes like a kind of inward folding of the air that thickened and foreshortened it…

Jirobei's eyes closed and his head went down.

It's not much, said the widow.

It is to me, Jirobei said.

The arsonist's widow went down to the riverbank on the day after Jirobei's execution.

The corpse of the huge pariah remained where it was, entombed under an immense pile of rocks.

Riffraff had gathered there, and one smirked and said that for twenty coppers, he would uncover the pariah's face for her to see.

When the arsonist's widow turned away without replying, he called after her: Fifteen coppers, then? Ten?

 
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