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2005 Samurai Fiction contest winner

Stray Dogs
(Edited 9/2005)

By N. Boal

Summer: 1701

"Here is where you belong, you drunken cur!"

The yojimbo, his muscular arms straining underneath the blue-striped kimono he wore, pushed a sodden, staggering man down into the muddy street outside the Kyoto teahouse, then stalked back inside. 

Fuwa Kazuemon rubbed his eyes, staring at the scene playing out before him.  It was a clear night after a day of rain, illuminated by the full moon. The man that had just been thrown out of the teahouse wore two swords; he was a samurai. He was of middle age, his face flushed red.  His forehead was cleanly shaven though hair-strands escaped from his topknot.  Kazuemon was glad that it was this other man being pushed into the mud, and not he.  He’d been similarly thrown out during the past few years, more than once, mainly for failure to pay his bill.

Tonight, he actually had a few coins, none of them of large value.  Earlier, he had received his regular earnings from Masakichi, the wholesaler who purchased the children’s inkbrushes he fashioned each day to make his living.  Going out for occasional nights of entertainment, he could escape the drudgery of his work.

The teahouse wasn’t in Kyoto’s famed Gion entertainment district; it was a lower-class establishment in a Kyoto slum, not far from where Kazuemon lived.  The man that lay on the ground was stirring; his grunts were sodden with the sake he had consumed in copious amounts. Kazuemon winced as he saw the man roll to his left, his body resting upon his daisho, pushing the two swords into the mud underneath him. 

How can this bushi treat his swords with such disrespect?  The question coursed through Kazuemon’s mind.  Kazuemon was a ronin who eked out a paltry living as an artisan, who dwelled in a one-room hovel. His kimono and hakama were frayed despite his best efforts to keep them patched up.  His hair and topknot were unruly and untrimmed. But his own two Norimitsu swords remained, as they always would, in pristine condition.

The man stirred again, waving his arms.  The pale blue silken kimono rippled as the wearer’s white mon displayed itself.  Kazuemon could only stare as he recognized the mon on the man’s sleeve: Oishi Kuranosuke. He was sprawled out, legs akimbo as he dozed in drunken stupor – this man, who had once been the chief retainer for the Asano clan in Ako. 

Five years ago, this had been Kazuemon’s own clan – before his lord had relieved him of his duties and expelled him.  It had been stupid and despicable, what he had done to merit the punishment.  Fresh from a victory in his clan’s kendo tournament, he had drunk a bit of sake – more than a bit – and had decided to go out that night to test his new Norimitsu katana.  In the cemetary of one of Ako’s paper merchants, he had dug up a freshly-buried body and started to cut into the body with his sword.  The sword had cut cleanly; his ki-ai shouts had brought a patrolling Ako retainer to the scene.

Stinging shame lanced through him; it always did when he recalled his offense against his lord.  The daimyo Asano Naganori cared for his fief and for the people he ruled, the commoners as well as his samurai retainers.  Lord Asano had called him in for a formal audience; his eyes had raked the floor beneath him as his lord had spoken to him:  Fuwa Kazuemon Masatane had violated the dignity of his lord’s treasured people.  Fuwa Kazuemon Masatane could no longer be a part of the Ako clan.  He would have to leave his lord’s sight, leave the land that he loved – and live on, weighted down by his own disgrace.   

Kazuemon brought himself to the present.  He swallowed hard – the man stretched out on the street before him.  It truly was Oishi Kuranosuke.

He’s a stray dog, just like me, Kazuemon pondered.  Early this past spring, Lord Asano had drawn his sword and attacked the Shogunate minister Kira Yoshinaka in the Shogun’s palace; this was after Kira Yoshinaka had showered him with abuses because of not receiving the customary bribes.  Lord Asano had been sentenced to death by seppuku.  The Asano clan had been ordered disbanded. The Asano retainers had all became ronin 

Kazuemon could remember the rumors, spreading through the stray dog haunts; the Ako men planned resistance against the Shogun’s unjust orders. There would be a fight at Ako Castle; good men would be needed to aid them and good pay would be given out.   

A flash of resentment passed through him.  He had rushed to Ako Castle with the other ronin.  He wasn’t like the others; he was a former Ako retainer.  He hadn’t come for the money.  Instead, he had come to atone for the offense he had commited years ago.  I came to avenge my lord. I should have been by his side, he recalled bitterly

Oishi Kuranosuke – the same man who lay in the mud: Kazuemon remembered the words flung out at him; it was as if he had heard them only yesterday.  He had approached his former chief retainer to offer his services – Oishi Kuranosuke had pushed him aside, as if he were vermin.  “Get out of my sight!  You are like the other ants, who come crawling out of the hills to feed on us.”  

An “ant?”  Oishi Kuranosuke’s words still burned inside him, even after these months had passed.  He felt his face growing hot.   “No!” He whispered fiercely to the fallen man.  “Not an ‘ant’ at all!”  The man lay in front of the tawdry teahouse from where he had been ejected; he was incapable of hearing.

Kazuemon’s mind drifted once more into past events.  There had been no resistance to the castle confiscation.  The Ako ex-retainers had streamed out of the castle to face their fates. The stray ronin that had wandered in had dispersed, seeking employment elsewhere. Himself, he had returned meekly to Kyoto where his hovel and inkbrushes awaited him.  

The swirling, whispered rumors of revenge had persisted – the Ako ronin were merely awaiting the right time, it was said. They would storm the mansion of Kira Yoshinaka, who had dishonored their lord.  They would take Kira’s head and present it at their lord’s burial site. 

Revenge?  The question shot through Kazuemon’s mind.  Maybe at some time, some place, the more reckless of the Ako ronin would attempt revenge.  It will probably fail, he thought.  Kira was well-guarded, not only with a force of his own retainers, but buttressed by the more skilled of the roaming stray dogs that had once sought service at Ako Castle.

Kazuemon let his breath out.  If there were to be an act of revenge, certainly the drunken, sodden creature in front of him would play no part.  The man couldn’t walk by himself.  His fine, silken clothing was splattered with dirt. His two swords were pressed into the wet mud; certainly they would be hopelessly rusted and damaged.  It was clear that this man’s spirit had been shattered by the death of his lord. 

Which is why he has taken to living like this, Kazuemon shook his head sadly.  He remembered that there had been talk drifting around, of Oishi Kuranosuke having divorced his wife, having sunk into depravity.  He’d never believed it before; he would have to believe it now.  Oishi Kuranosuke, the refined gentleman and warrior – his family had served Ako Castle for generations.  How can he ever survive as a scrounging ronin?

It was unseemly, his former chief retainer stretched out in the mud.  Some force within him drove him to action, to aid the man. Another force advised him to leave the pitiful wretch lying there.  If I’m only an “ant,” then what is he?

Kazuemon knew which force within he would obey.  He was big and strong; he would be able to heave the other man over his shoulder and carry him.  He would take his former leader to his own house, allowing him to sleep off the night’s excesses.  “Oishi-dono!” he called out.  “Let’s get you somewhere safe.” 

Oishi grunted as Kazuemon pulled him, lurching, on his feet.   Oishi’s head lolled toward him.  “Pull yourself together, Oishi-dono,” he commanded as the two made their way down a side street toward Kazuemon’s abode.  Kazuemon could smell the sake on his breath.  He’d never had objections to good sake when he could afford it, which wasn’t often.  Right now, the sake scent was roiling his stomach. 

A noise intruded into Kazuemon’s ears – the metallic click of a thumb pushing against a sword-guard, loosening a sword from its sheath.  He spun around, still holding on to his burden.  Oishi gave out a moan as he clung to Kazuemon’s shouders.

A figure loomed before Kazuemon’s vision.  Kazuemon’s hand went instantly to his own katana, wrapping itself around the hilt. His thumb pushed against the guard.  Who was this man – some roughneck spoiling for a fight?  He could take him on.

The swordsman, tall and familiar to Kazuemon, advanced toward him.  He felt a dead weight lift from him – Oishi had slipped off his shoulders, landing on the ground in a tangled heap by his feet.  The swordsman stepped toward the huddled figure.

“Boozed out of his mind as usual?” the swordsman spoke.  Kazuemon recognized the voice, a man with whom he had exchanged pleasantries, at an inn outside Ako Castle, one of the stray ronin who had sought work there.  Now he was more neatly dressed, his topknot groomed impeccably.  Must have found a job, Kazuemon guessed.

The swordsman confirmed Kazuemon’s suspicions.  “Tanaka Kenjiro.  I serve Lord Uesugi Aminori,” he named the daimyo, related to Kira Yoshinaka by marriage, who was one of Kira’s main allies. 

Tanaka stared down at the fallen man by Kazuemon’s feet.  His laughter echoed through the night air, “that piece of trash is supposed to be the leader of the brave Ako men.”    He continued relentlessly, “Oishi Kuranosuke, the village drunkard.  I’ve been hearing the tales.” Oishi whispered something unintelligible in response.  Tanaka turned his gaze toward Kazuemon.  “No need to worry about the Ako ronin planning an attack if they’re all like this faithless scum. ”  

Tanaka suddenly drew his katana.  “However, I will put this pathetic creature out of his misery,” he spat out.  The fury in his voice raced through Kazuemon’s mind. Tanaka raised his sword above Oishi’s head.

It met with the movement of another sword.  Kazuemon’s katana was drawn, pushing Tanaka’s sword aside with a circular sweep.  Metal “clangs” resounded as the two fencers parried each others’ blows.  The two backed off.  Kazuemon held his sword in the middle chudan position.

“Fuwa Kazuemon, ronin, formerly of Ako,” he gave his formal introduction.  “Touch this man at your peril, I will defend him to the death.” 

Tanaka laughed again.  “I remember what you told me once.  Lord Asano threw you out of the clan several years ago, when he still had his fief.  Didn’t he?  And you still play lapdog for this piece of garbage?”  He briefly nodded at Oishi.

“You….,” Kazuemon cried out, bristling at the insults to his former chief retainer.  His sword lifted up over his head as he stepped forward. Tanaka began to back up from him.   A gathering of energy streamed into his arms, into his katana.  He’d been in street fights before, where any perceived slight would bring forth challenges and blows.  This was different – his lord’s chief retainer needed his protection.   

He brought his katana down toward Tanaka’s forehead.  Tanaka jerked his head out of the way, then countered with an upward, glancing blow.  Kazuemon’s blade curved in, reaching Tanaka’s exposed side.  He tightened his hands as his sword met flesh.  The sword cut cleanly through the torso.  Tanaka staggered back as blood ran onto his kimono.   Kazuemon lifted his katana and thrust it through his opponent’s throat, the final, killing blow.

Kazuemon flicked the blood off of his blade, then re-sheathed it.   He searched out his former chief retainer, who was sitting up, holding his head in his hands.  “Oishi-dono, time to come with me,” he said.  He grabbed Oishi’s hands, picking him up off the ground.  “Steady, lean on me, Oishi-dono.”  Slowly, the two made their way down the darkened, moonlit road.

Kazuemon pushed open the tattered sliding door of his house.  Shame stung him – to have to bring his lord’s former chief retainer to such an abode as his own.  It was tiny, only a few tatami mats in size, and the mats he had were worn through in spots.  A hibachi occupied the center, a battered chest of drawers occupied a corner.  Bamboo shafts were stacked by one wall; other supplies for making his inkbrushes were scattered about the floor. 

Kazuemon directed Oishi to sit on the floor’s edge.  He rushed inside to clear out and neaten the place.  He would let the house remain dark, not lighting the candle – by moonlight, he could make the arrangements for his guest.  He hastily rolled out his only futon, bedcover, and pillow onto the floor.  The bedding was ragged and patched-up; it was all that he had.  Fortunately, his guest seemed unaware of the paucity of his host’s accomodations. 

“Lie down, Oishi-dono,” Kazuemon said.  He helped him mount the step onto the tatami floor, then carefully lowered him down on the futon, arranging his head on the pillow.  He reached for Oishi’s two swords, withdrawing them from their owner’s obi.  Taking a cloth, he carefully wiped the mud off of the outside fittings and placed them on his own sword rack next to Oishi’s head.  Then he pulled the bedcover up, over his guest.  

Oishi sighed and straightened his legs, making himself comfortable.  Kazuemon found a corner, leaning himself against his chest of drawers; this would do as his own bed for tonight.  He started to drift off into sleep.

Oishi spoke, drawing Kazuemon from his reveries.  “’Boozed out of his mind as usual…,’” he muttered to himself, his voice laden from his night of revels.  He pulled himself up onto his elbows.  “’ Oishi Kuranosuke… the village… drunkard.’”  The insults trailed from his mouth.   

Kazuemon found himself fully alert.  Is Oishi Kuranosuke so burdened with his own behavior that he has to babble out this nonsense?   The man was talking as if he were in his own land of sake-filled dreams.  Kazuemon longed to be able to lift up the despair that cloaked this man.  At the same time, a rising revulsion was churning inside him.  This man had once been Lord Asano’s chief retainer.  How could he allow himself to fall to such depths?  

A bitter laugh rippled through the room.  “’ No need to… to worry about the Ako ronin… planning an attack,’” Oishi rasped out.  “’if… if they’re all like this… faithless scum.’”  His eyes raked the floor as his hands tightened into hard fists. 

He turned his gaze upward.  His eyes glittered brightly; his voice still struggled under the weight of the sake he had consumed.   “Let… Kira’s spies see Oishi Kuranosuke...  and let them spread their tales.”   He pushed himself unsteadily onto his knees.   “Only…sixty left in… our band,” he whispered.  He seemed unaware of Kazuemon’s presence.  “Must send Hara… Soemon to… meet with… the Edo contingent…”       

An attack?  The thought shot through Kazuemon’s mind.  Oishi was still under the influence – did he really mean to let this slip out?  Hara Soemon – he remembered this man, an Ako retainer.  “Only sixty left in our band…  The Edo contingent.” Hara Soemon was supposed to meet with other Ako ronin in Edo – was this was part of a plan to avenge Lord Asano’s death?   

Other words spun in Kazuemon’s mind.  “Let Kira’s spies see Oishi Kuranosuke... and let them spread their tales.”   

The words settled inside.  The truth slammed against him.  Oishi Kuranosuke was deliberately acting out the part of the depraved, faithless drunkard.  To throw Kira and his armies off their guard.  Oishi Kuranosuke was casting aside his honor, throwing aside his reputation and good name – giving himself over to contemptibility and disgrace.  To bring honor to our lord.

Kazuemon felt his cheeks burn.  His eyes searched the tattered tatami floor beneath him. What had he thought, what had he done?  He had seen his former chief retainer as a sodden, pathetic creature.  He had come to Oishi’s aid, even killed a man.  Only because I pitied him.  He clenched his fists.  He was an ignorant man, a man who, years ago, had displeased his lord by his unthinking act against his lord’s people.  Am I still that ignorant now?

His old shame washed over him.  

Kazuemon glanced over toward his former chief ratainer.  Oishi had lain down on the futon, the cover pulled over him, his eyes closed in slumber.  Kazuemon swallowed hard.  He had heard words come out of Oishi’s mouth that were not meant for him as a castoff ex-retainer.  He could never repeat these words – not even to Oishi himself.  He let his breath out, leaning against his chest of drawers for his own night’s sleep.    

The next morning, Kazuemon was seated on his heels on his tatami floor.  He could hear the neighborhood’s cries, the poundings, the shouts of another day’s tasks beginning.  Earlier, he had served tea to Oishi, though Oishi had declined a morning meal.  Kazuemon knew that it was because of the excesses of the night before – excesses in service to his lord, Kazuemon reminded himself.  He had sent Oishi Kuranosuke off, silently bidding him success for his mission of vengeance.  He had watched his former chief retainer as he had stepped away, disappearing around a corner where the street turned.  

Oishi Kuranosuke would be forced back into his odious role in the teahouses of Kyoto.  How long would he have to keep at this role – before the time when he could gather his men together and lead the attack on Kira’s mansion? 

Kazuemon made his silent pledge.  He had offended his lord; thus he never could be allowed to participate in the actual act of vengeance.  But he could play his small part.  From tonight on, Fuwa Kazuemon will be Oishi Kuranosuke’s protector.  Kazuemon had kept Oishi from harm last night; he would continue with this duty, watching over Oishi as he frequented his places of entertainment.  He would quietly shadow his lord’s chief retainer, keeping Kira’s henchmen from attacking or harrassing him.  He could do that, at least. 

Kazuemon straightened his posture.  He felt his spirit’s force from the center of his body, streaming throughout his body, into his mind.  He put on his apron, tied back his sleeves, and wrapped a plain hachimaki around his head.  It was going to be a hot day but it would have to be a full day of work.   He picked up a bamboo shaft from the pile he had stacked against the wall.  He leaned over his sanding stone; the end of the shaft needed to be smoothed down before he could attach the writing brush to it.  

*            *             *                                                                                             *          *            *  

NOTE:  Some time later, Oishi Kuranosuke invited Fuwa Kazuemon, ex-retainer of Ako, to participate in the vengeance against Kira Yoshinaka.  Fuwa Kazuemon came to Edo, knelt down before his lord’s grave and apologized to him for the offense that had caused him to be banished.  On December 14, 1702, Fuwa Kazuemon fought valliantly against Kira’s retainers during the successful attack against Kira.  He is buried at Senkakuji Temple, one of the 47 faithful who avenged the death of Lord Asano Naganori.