Fuwa Kazuemon ran his hand over his unruly, untrimmed hair. He was sitting on his heels upon worn tatami in his tiny rented hovel. He had his work apron on, his sleeves tied back. The words pounded in his head – words from former Ako Chief Retainer Oishi Kuranosuke, who had visited him earlier that morning. “I don’t need to have you watch over me any longer.”
Kazuemon swallowed hard. It must be time for the attack, he thought. On this anniversary date. One year ago today, Lord Asano Takumi-no-kami Naganori had carried out his sentence of death by seppuku. Kazuemon pondered the situation. Oishi Kuranosuke will be able to stop his drunken carousing, he reasoned. Oishi would no longer have to play the odious role he had set for himself to fool the Kira spies. Instead, he would be leaving Kyoto for Edo. He would gather his band of Ako ronin – to prepare for storming the mansion where his lord’s enemy, Kira Yoshinaka, was residing. My Lord Asano will be avenged at last.
Doesn’t concern you – he’s not your lord, Kazuemon lectured himself. He swallowed again. He wouldn’t be preparing for battle with the other Ako ronin; he would remain behind in Kyoto where he lived. He was an Ako ronin – but he was different from the members of the faithful band. Lord Asano’s words resounded inside him, as if spoken just yesterday – though they had been spoken over six years ago. “Fuwa Kazuemon Masatane, you have violated the dignity of Ako’s treasured people. You can no longer be a part of the Ako clan. Leave my land, my sight. Live on and be weighed down by your disgrace.”
Kazuemon let his breath out. For him, expelled in dishonor from the Ako clan, it would be just another day; he was unworthy to become a part of the band of avengers. He wasn’t supposed to know about the attack. He had happened to find out by chance months ago. Since then, he had taken the task on himself, shadowing Oishi, protecting him during his jaunts at various teahouses. It’s the only thing that I can do.
Oishi Kuranosuke’s words came to him again. “I know what you have done, keeping watch over me. I thank you. But I don’t need to have you watch over me any longer.”
Kazuemon sighed. It would be back again to his mundane life. He picked up another bamboo shaft from the pile he had stacked against the wall. He leaned over his sanding stone; he had to smooth down the end of the shaft. Then he could attach the writing brush to it. Over and over, day after day, it was the same routine, making more inkbrushes. These weren’t fine implements made by masters for use by master calligraphers; these were ordinary writing tools for schoolchildren. Six years ago, he had contracted to sell his wares to Masakichi the wholesaler, receiving a pittance for each piece produced. It was piecework, what many ronin had to do to eat rice every day.
As he sanded and prepared his inkbrushes, his mind drifted back to the past. Once, he had been a samurai of Ako, assiduously studying Kurama Shindo ryu swordsmanship. He could remember Lord Asano, praising him for his vigor and hard work. How his pride had filled him – he had emerged as the winner in the clan kenjutsu matches.
His gaze drifted. In a corner, amid the squalor of his home, two sheathed Norimitsu swords, kept in pristine condition, were resting on his sword rack. The questions kept searing his mind. Why did I do such a foolish, despicable act? He had been drunk with victory as well as with too much sake; he had headed out that night to test his new katana blade on a real human body. He had found the gravesite of a merchant family. He was samurai – it would be a commoner’s body.
“My people are my treasure.” He could hear Lord Asano’s words. “All of them, not just my samurai, but also the commoners in my fief. We must take care of them. We must respect them.” His hands stopped from their work; he stared at the floor. With no more rice stipend from his clan, he had been forced to learn how to survive as best as he had been able. There were few choices for a ronin that had been discharged from his clan; Shogunate laws prohibited another lord from taking him on as a retainer. I never wanted a master other than Lord Asano.
He had set his task to follow a temperate path, to gain back his lord’s favor, to win reinstatement. He had refused to get involved in banditry; he had refrained from unsavory ronin occupations, such as challenging various dojos or becoming a bodyguard for a yakuza gang. He had moved to Kyoto, humbled himself before the commoner, Masakichi. The wholesaler had set him up for his piecework trade.
The years had gone by. He had avoided most trouble, just a few scrapes – challenges for petty points of “honor” or getting thrown out of inns for not paying his bill. His thoughts assailed him. No more hope for reinstatement. The Ako Asano clan existed no longer. One year ago this day, his lord had committed seppuku. His former colleagues, Oishi Kuranosuke, Hara Soemon, Kataoka Gengoemon, the other three hundred Ako retainers – all were ronin now, the same as he.
Resentment burst into his consciousness along with his bitter memories. I only wanted to atone for my offense. At the news of the great calamity, he had packed his armor and rushed from his house to Ako Castle. The area had been teeming with ragged, stray-dog ronin, looking to earn a few ryo by fighting alongside the Ako men. Oishi Kuranosuke had regarded him as he would the dirt on the side of a road. “Get out of my sight! You are like the other ants, who come crawling out of the hills to feed on us.”
Oishi had visited him this morning. Am I still an “ant?” The former chief retainer’s eyes had scanned over him, over his patched kimono and the inkbrush supplies scattered on the tattered tatami floor. Or did he see me as an object of pity – a poor, destitute ronin living in misery? Oishi Kuranosuke’s most recent words spun again into his mind. “I don’t need to have you watch over me any longer.”
He breathed deeply, his hands still moving, performing his work. I’m going to go out tonight, entertain myself. His thoughts paused; it was the anniversary of his lord’s death. He shrugged his shoulders. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t concern me any longer. I have no lord.
That evening, Kazuemon paused outside an inn, the White Peony. It was a familiar place, one that looked rather tawdry from the outside; he had never frequented this inn before, though once he had followed Oishi here, protecting him. Try something new for myself. This will do for tonight. With sheathed katana in his right hand, he walked into the main entrance room, settling down on a seat. “Sake!” he barked at the hovering server. She nodded and disappeared through a back entrance. He could hear drums pounding along with samisen within one of the inner rooms.
A sliding shoji door opened. A man staggered into the room, middle-age, wearing a brightly-splashed yukata; he was blindfolded. “I’ll catch you!” he guffawed. A group of teahouse girls who worked for the establishment poured out.
“Uncle Uki!” the teahouse girls tittered, breaking out in giggles. Kazuemon felt the blood running from his face. Oishi Kuranosuke, he recognized the man. He is drunk. The man waved his arms around, his steps wobbled. “Can’t catch us, can’t catch us, Uncle Uki!” the girls kept shouting.
This is the anniversary day of Lord Asano’s death, Kazuemon’s thoughts shot out. What is Oishi doing? He’s supposed to be getting his men ready to avenge our lord. Oishi stumbled, he fell heavily onto the floor. One of the girls tugged at Oishi’s sleeve. “Get up, Uncle Uki!” she urged. The girls all dashed through the open door. Oishi clambered to his feet. He lunged through the door after the girls, slamming the door closed behind him.
The server reappeared, hands empty. Following her was the White Peony’s gray-haired proprietor. The man stepped to Kazuemon’s table. “Kohachi at your service, sir. Please,” his eyes scanned over him, his polite speech barely covering contempt. “Can you pay for your order up front?” he asked.
Kazuemon glanced down at his kimono; it was frayed, its mon were fading – it was the best one he still had. Do I really look like a begging freeloader? He stood stiffly up. “Insolence!” he shouted at Kohachi. “Why do you treat me this way?”
Coming behind Kohachi, a thick-set ronin appeared, obviously the White Peony’s yojimbo. Kazuemon pushed down his anger; he wanted to stay. Find out what Oishi-dono is doing. He still couldn’t believe what he had seen; the former Ako chief retainer carousing with teahouse girls. On this day of all days. Why?
He looked into the yojimbo’s eyes. “I’ll get your money,” he muttered. He reached his hand into his kimono, grasping the coin packet inside. He brought out his handful of coins. He stared at the coins that lay in his palm – a miniscule amount, not nearly enough to buy the small vase of sake he had ordered. His face grew hot. He inclined his head, speaking with lowered voice. “Please, let me have just one little cup. I can pay you tomorrow.”
“Genzo,” Kohachi addressed his yojimbo, “show that starving mendicant out.” Genzo moved behind Kazuemon. Kazuemon resigned himself, remembering those earlier instances in the past. He could feel his face grow red. This isn’t the first time. He picked up his katana and rose.
Before Genzo could act, the inner shoji opened again. Oishi Kuranosuke tottered out. Oishi pointed at Kazuemon. “Hey, hey,” he exclaimed, his speech slurred. “I know that… that man. A fine bushi at one point; too bad that he insulted his lord – we… we had to throw him out of the clan… many years ago.” The man laughed loudly. “A-a-ah,” he sighed. “My clan is no more; Lord Asano is no more. Now I’m just a begging ronin as well… My lord did a foolish, foolish act in the Shogun’s palace and… and he had to slit his belly just a year ago. Too bad, can’t… be helped…” He lifted his sleeve to his face, wiping off the trickling moisture from his eye. “More… sake…” he said, his tears clouding his voice. “It… it will… make me… forget…”
I must have been wrong, the thoughts exploded within Kazuemon. He has never intended to avenge his lord. He has grown witless with grief. He whirled to face Kohachi and his hired swordsman. “Just because I am a ronin, you would throw me out like trash!” he exclaimed. “I am an Ako samurai. Or at least I used to be.” He shoved away the hands that reached for his kimono. “You let that other ronin, that drunken, faithless coward – you would let him remain!”
“Out you go,” Genzo growled at him. Kazuemon looked back as he stalked through the inn’s entrance. He noticed – Genzo was looking over his shoulder, back at the sake ridden carouser. Underneath his rage, a prickly sensation arose inside him. Something is not quite right.
He stood on the street, staring at the White Peony’s entrance. His thoughts burst out. Why should I care? Once more, his lack of funds had thwarted his desire for entertainment. Just go home, he told himself grimly. Go to bed. Wake up tomorrow, work all day; same for the next day after. He placed his katana under his obi. He wanted to turn, to leave. His feet froze – something was preventing him from walking away.
Oishi staggered through the entrance. The teahouse girls clung to his sleeves, crying out. “Uncle Uki, please come back! Please don’t leave us! Uncle Uki!” He laughed and waved them off; their titterings could be heard as they returned inside. Oishi began making his way down the street; he could barely keep himself upright.
Urgent thoughts clawed at Kazuemon. Even though I disobey his orders – I must watch over my chief retainer. Quietly, in the darkness of night, he followed Oishi. His ears pricked; he could hear the sounds of fingers on tsuba, swords loosening from their sheaths. His hand reached for the hilt of his sword.
Three shadows leaped out, katana upraised. All three stepped behind Oishi Kuranosuke – who, as drunk as he was, took no notice of any of them. Kazuemon did not hesitate, but jumped in front of the three swordsmen. His katana whirled, blocking the thrusts that had been intended for the former Ako chief retainer. “Fuwa Kazuemon, ronin, formerly of Ako,” he cried out, holding his sword in front of him. “Who are you?”
A hand pointed outward. A voice shot out from the night. Three men stepped forward. Their hair was neatly trimmed; they were dressed in uniformly crisp dark clothing. “Doesn’t matter who we are,” the man standing at center spoke, pointing at the wobbling Oishi. “It only matters that this man will die and go to hell!”
“You….!” Kazuemon retorted. “You are the ones who are headed to hell!” He had to face three men; he knew that facing three was the same as facing one man at a time. He kept two of the men in his peripheral vision, concentrating on the one directly before him. He stood, his katana in middle chudan position, advancing toward the center swordsman. He spun as a sword from his left descended toward his head; he ducked, swept his sword in a circle, catching the man in his side. Blood spattered; Kazuemon delivered the killing blow to the man’s throat.
There was no time to celebrate victory or even to rest. Because a second sword circled in toward his right side. Kazuemon twisted his body, ducked his head. In the same motion, his katana tipped his opponent’s sword aside, then pushed itself inside the man’s throat. More flowing blood as the man fell slowly on his side.
There were only two: Kazuemon against the other. “Is this all that Ako can offer,” the man taunted, “a ragtag scrounging ronin defending a boozed up stumblebum?”
“So are you one of Kira’s spies?” Kazuemon spat out. “An assassin hired by one of his allies? You can’t possibly be a true bushi – you make a habit of attacking men from behind.”
Kazuemon raised his sword up high, over his head; he felt the flowing energy from his belly, upward, into his arms. His opponent circled his sword toward his chest. Kazuemon dodged aside; with the same motion, his katana buried itself inside his enemy’s head. Yet more spilled blood, and the third body sank to the ground; his spirit was traveling into the next world.
Kazuemon flicked the blood off of his katana and placed it inside its sheath. Oishi-dono, Kazuemon thought. Is he all right? He turned to look; a plainly dressed young man was helping the former chief retainer.
“Father,” a youthful voice spoke.
“Chikara, help me home.” It was Oishi’s son; Kazuemon recognized him. How he’s grown tall since I last saw him years ago. “I will be fine, especially after a night’s rest to sleep this off.” He laughed softly as he let his son hold his arm.
Kazuemon watched as father and son made their way down the street. He turned to face in the opposite way. He swallowed hard. Oishi-dono has truly lost his mind, going on a spree – on this anniversary night. How could he do that? Has he truly forgotten his lord?
Just go home, he instructed himself. Numbness crept up inside him. Your job with him is through. It would be back to his regular work for him, another day, a few more days. Then some entertainment for myself. I’ll have the money; I won’t be thrown out again.
Later the next morning, Kazuemon’s work apron was on again, his kimono sleeves tied back. The numbness was clinging to him. His hands moved rapidly, the repeating steps in his piecework craft. The monotomy had a soothing effect on him; he would not have to ponder last night.
“Please excuse me!” a voice threaded through the shoji wall. “May I come in?” It was Oishi Kuranosuke’s voice outside, clear and steady. Kazuemon wondered. Why is he coming here? He rose to his feet and rushed over to open his shoji door.
Oishi Kuranosuke stood right outside. He was dressed neatly, hair groomed and trimmed. Kazuemon bowed. “Please, come in.” Oishi removed his straw sandals and stepped on the worn tatami floor. Kazuemon felt his usual shame. “I beg you to excuse the wretchedness of my poor quarters,” he murmured.
Oishi smiled. “We all are feeling the pinch these days. Can’t help it, it’s what we must bear.” He sat down on his heels; Kazuemon did the same, facing him.
Oishi bowed. “Fuwa Kazuemon,” he spoke. “I feel that I’ve wronged you. I’ve sorely misjudged you.” Kazuemon could only stare. Oishi continued. “You truly are the most faithful of all my men.”
Kazuemon found himself twisting away. “Please, Oishi-dono,” his eyes searched the tatami beneath him. “I am not one of your men. I am only a ronin, banished from his clan years ago, quite rightly. I…” His voice caught, his fingers curled. “Oishi-dono, I was once a samurai. My duty as a samurai was to serve my lord.” He paused. His throat thickened. “I failed in my duty. I am ashamed. I offended my lord.”
“You had no more obligation to Our lord,” Oishi replied. “He set you adrift. You have been free to go wherever you wished. You came to Ako and I chased you away; I insulted you.” Oishi glanced down. His voice was muffled, almost in a whisper. “No matter – you remained loyal to your lord.”
Kazuemon sat up straight. “Oishi-dono,” he said plainly. “I disobeyed your orders last night. That was inexcuseable.”
Oishi looked up. He squared his shoulders. “Fuwa Kazuemon Masatane,” he announced. “In the name of Lord Asano Takumi-no-kami Naganori, I reinstate you into the Ako clan.”
Kazuemon felt the blood rush from his face. The words he had longed to hear for so many years: “I reinstate you into the Ako clan.” He bowed down. Tears began flowing from his eyes; words stumbled from his mouth. “I… I..” Joy rushed into his face, throughout his whole body. “Oishi-dono, my Lord Chief Retainer…”
“We must remember,” Oishi said gravely. “All the men of Ako were set adrift; we are all ronin. We must continue to live as such. I’m a dissolute sot who goes out to play on his lord’s death anniversary. You are a poor pieceworker, a careless sort who gets kicked out of inns. Did you know?” Oishi raised his eyebrows. “Genzo the yojimbo in the White Peony is one of Kira’s spies, hired to watch us? I’m sure he’ll have some nice stories to report to his employers.” Oishi laughed heartily.
Oishi’s face grew serious. “As was said in olden times, ‘No man can live under the same Heaven as the murderer of his lord.’ We are sworn to avenge our lord. I want you to join us.”
“Hai!” Kazuemon cried out. He bowed down; his heart leaped up. He was a samurai again, in service to his lord. “I will apologize for my offenses at our lord’s grave.”
“There will be time for that,” Oishi assured him. “For now, it’s back to the same business. I’ll be out gamboling around the teahouses tonight – and of course you will quietly protect me, as you always have. We will keep meeting secretly, with some of our other men. When the time is right, I’ll give the word. Then we will travel to Edo together.” Oishi rose to his feet. “Must rest now for tonight’s duties. Take care.” He opened the sliding door and was gone.
Kazuemon could only sit quietly. He leaned back in happiness and relief. He straightened his shoulders. “We are all ronin. We must continue to live as such.” He adjusted his work apron, then picked up another bamboo shaft to sand.