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The Street Sweeper
By Nina Boal

Genre: Ghost Story

2008 Samurai Fiction Contest Honorable Mention

 

Summer twilight rays illuminated the daisho, the matched pair of swords; they lay, partially hidden, on the grass outside of the Buddhist temple. As he spotted the swords, Kingo ran his hand over the gray rags he wore.  Visions from the past months and years, his thoughts spun out as he shrank back.  His nights had been ever restless, haunted by images from his past – violent, blood-filled dreams full of vile memories.  These swords lying there – they were just wicked visions, invading his waking moments.

Ignore them, Kingo commanded himself, twisting away.  Get back to work.  It was the end of the day. The Edo crowds, mostly townspeople but also a few samurai, were engaged in their affairs.  This was a side street leading to the temple, a place where he was forbidden to enter. It was his job to stand on the side, holding a slender broom for sweeping the street when needed.  He had to make sure to remain as unobtrusive as possible.  These were people coming to make offerings at the temple, and it was up to him to keep the street presentable.   A regular human being would never perform this task, that of cleaning the dirt and debris where feet would tread.  This was a task suitable for one such as him – a hinin, a non-human.

Kingo ducked his head low and continued sweeping.  He had placed a basket on the side where a person could leave him coins if he performed his duty diligently.  His tangled hair fell over his brow; it was bluntly cut to mark him as a non-human outcast, rather than gathered into a queue as would be customary.  He knew he was dirty; his face and clothing were soiled.  As a street sweeper, he could only expect that the dust from underneath peoples’ feet would continue to cling to him. 

He felt a shove; he glanced up – a bushi was staring at him, hand upon his sword’s hilt.  The man was dressed in threadbare clothes; his topknot was disheveled – clearly, this man was a ronin.   “How dare you clutter up my path!” the ronin shouted above him.  “I should rid the land of your stench!” 

Kingo dropped to his knees, curling his body into a deep bow.  He was accustomed to such insults.  He knew his presence disgusted many who passed him by; however, most people simply ignored him as too unworthy even for attention.   As for making amends to this bushi – Kingo could do nothing other than stare at the dirt beneath him, whispering his apologies over and over again.  A human, especially a bushi, would never be punished for insulting or cutting down a non-human such as him.  A sandaled foot kicked him, knocking him down onto his side where he lay frozen in place.  “I’ll let you live for now.  The street needs cleaning,” the ronin muttered, striding away.  Kingo scrambled upon his feet.  “The street needs cleaning.”  Frantic, he repeated the bushi’s words to himself.   I must be more diligent.  He moved his broom, brushing the street’s debris aside. 

A glint of sunlight made him turn his head.  The daisho’s illusion still remained in the grass by the temple.   Where do these dream images come from?   His mind raced back into his past.  There had once been a time when he had not been a hinin, when he had lived a life fit for a human being. A name flared within his mind: “Yamamoto Kingo Yoshinobu” – a samurai’s name. 

His mind slammed shut.  Shivers ran into his shoulders; he remembered his encounter with the ronin.  He pushed the dream-swords from his mind.   Swords are not for one such as you, he firmly told himself as he numbly continued his work.  You are just Kingo, a non-human coward.  This is your proper station.  He could remember when he first had come to Edo years ago, a lone vagrant far from his home, reduced to abjectly begging for his daily food.  The head of the beggar’s guild had taken him in; he had arranged for Kingo to be registered in the government census, had obtained his permit and assigned him his street that he was to keep meticulously groomed for the people’s use. 

Night was falling, his work ending for the day.  He stretched his aching shoulders and gathered up his basket.  There were a few coins, just enough to sustain him – in the past few years of this life, he had learned to exist simply.  After walking a distance, he reached his neighborhood on the banks of the Sumida River; a district reserved for outcasts such as he.  He crept into his reed-mat hut where he lived by himself – no wife or children.  The floor was bare dirt with a small fireplace for him to prepare his meals of millet or wheat gruel.  Each evening was the same, as was each day. He would prepare and eat his meal, and then he would roll out his bedding and fall into sleep – and go into his realm of nightmares. The next morning, he would wearily fetch his broom and go out once more to his tasks.  

After his meal, he lay down on his bedding.  Sleep quickly overtook him.  The nightmares’ visions returned.

…Blood flowing.  A young boy cried, then another child, a girl.  Shapes ranged before him; they were dressed in white, pure as death.  Faces, pale with raven hair that moved in the shadowy realm.  A woman’s voice moaned; the children cried once again.  Dark crimson blood oozed from within pale throats…

 

Kingo sat bolt upright in his bed.  The dreams, the dreams come again – when will I ever be free of the dreams?  His hand brushed his wet forehead.   His eyes searched around him.

He froze.  Not my home; this is…  He swallowed.  Did I crawl into this place in my sleep?  The peaceful, smiling face of Buddha was looming down upon him.  The Buddhist Temple.  Fear clutched around him.   I do not belong here, his thoughts raced out – a dust-caked hinin street sweeper would defile the cleanliness of this sacred space.  He bowed his head.  “Forgive this wretched one,” he murmured his prayer to the deity who sat placidly above him.  He clambered on his knees, to crawl away.  You belong outside – amidst the dirt of the street.           

He found his knees scrabbling, in vain, on the temple’s wooden floor. He was moving nowhere; something was holding him in place. Consumed with terror, he lunged, falling forward; his hands clawed the smooth surface as thoughts raced through his head.  The gods I’ve offended with my presence – what do they have in store for me?      

Swirling shapes merged into the figure of a woman – one he had known.  Matsumi, my wife.  Her ghost was confronting him: confronting his crimes, his failures, the repugnance of his nature. 

He gasped.  A pale-white hand produced a mirror, placing it in front of his eyes – it was the mirror that Matsumi had used to groom herself in earlier days.  An old proverb flickered through his mind: The mirror is the soul of a woman.  His wife’s soul seized him, forcing him to view himself.  Tangled, unwashed hair framed his head.  Sunken, hopeless eyes stared back at him from his dirt-streaked face.  His grimy gray kimono was draped around his thin figure.

The image shifted.

…In the clan dojo, a kendo student faced his fellow samurai in practice.  Like his fellow clansmen, he was striving to improve his abilities in the martial ways, as had been prescribed for all samurai.  Pain slammed into his wrists from a blow from a wooden practice sword.  Another blow smacked him on the side of his chest. Vainly, with clumsy efforts, he fought to defend himself.  Agony burst all around him as repeated strokes fell again and again upon his bruised, bleeding body. 

Tears began edging out of his eyes.  “Look!” chuckled one of the other students.  “Kingo-san is weeping, begging for his life.”  Raucous laughter surrounded him as his moist eyes raked the wooden dojo floor. 

“Yamamoto, you are useless!” the kendo teacher shouted at him in disgust.  “Instead of practicing with the others, you will polish the dojo floor,” he commanded.  The student bowed, his anger seething inside; he turned it on himself, on his own incompetence.  Shortly afterward, he was on his hands and knees. His back and arms strained as he bent forward, circling the polishing cloth to buff the wooden floor into smooth perfection.      

Yamamoto Kingo was kneeling, back bent over an accounting ledger in service to his lord.  This study where he worked was his sanctuary, away from the mockery of his martial arts practice.  He was dressed in crisp dark-blue kimono, a light-blue hakama, and matching kamishimo, his hair oiled and drawn into its topknot over his clean-shaven forehead. He had been a younger son in his family and had been fortunate to be offered this position as an accounting assistant within his clan. He was content with his duties in this age of peace – no wars had been fought for over a hundred years. 

That evening, Yamamoto Kingo returned to his modest home, stepping inside the doorway.   His wife met him; she greeted him and took his long sword to be placed on the sword rack.  A child’s laughter resounded; Aya, his eight-year-old daughter, bounded into the main living room.  “Father, look!” she crowed as she tossed up her colorful fabric ball.  He smiled and swept his daughter into his arms…

Kingo wrenched himself out of the mirror’s grip.   No, no! That is not me.  He was sobbing; tears were streaming down his face.  “I am hinin, non-human,” he moaned to the shadows around him.  “I am only a street sweeper.  I am not…”

The spirit-woman that had once been his wife stood up in front of him.  Her shining mirror pierced the surrounding shadows.  Long tendrils of her hair wrapped around him, holding him into place. The mirror clenched around him, gathering him into its vision once more.  

…Yamamoto Kingo beamed proudly at his wife as she told him her news.  They were seated across from each other for dinner.  “My husband,” Matsumi spoke with her soft, musical voice.  “I have been assigned to be an attendant for our lord’s honorable wife.  I will help her take care of the young lord.   Tomorrow, for dinner, our young lord and his mother will be visiting this humble abode.”  She dropped her gaze.  “This will be a great honor for our family.”

The following night, Yamamoto Kingo was gazing in joyous wonder.  Matsumi and her servants had prepared a grand feast for the esteemed guests.   Seven-year old Kikumaru, the young lord, smiled with delight as little Aya crouched down to pour tea into his cup. 

The joyous wonder turned to horror – several hooded assassins suddenly broke through the shoji door.  Matsumi leaped up in front of Kikumaru, dagger drawn.  “Defend our young lord!” she cried.  Swords reached out, cutting her down instantly; blood spurted from her chest.  Little Aya did not hesitate – she picked up her mother’s dagger in her fingers, placing her tiny body in front of her young lord.  Cruel blows sliced into her throat – a samurai’s child died for her lord.

Yamamoto Kingo the samurai, the child’s father – he crouched behind a fusama picture panel.  A child screamed; it was his young lord, being slaughtered as he hid away in his own terror.  The slashing swords were so similar to those at the dojo – but these were live swords.  

…Away, run away, he told himself, let your clan be freed from your foul cowardice.  Damp gray clinging fog surrounded him as he fled from his home, from the castle…

   

…“Everything, O-Samurai-sama?” the Edo pawnbroker inquired gently, pity in his eyes. “Your swords, your clothing? All of your things?”

“Don’t call me ‘samurai’!” he shouted.   He wrapped his one remaining kimono around him.  He bowed his head low and scuttled out of the pawnshop, not even taking the coins that the pawnbroker had proffered.    

 The mirror’s grip loosened. He was still kneeling on the temple’s hard floor.  Dark shadows crowded around him.  My young lord, my wife, my daughter – it was my duty to avenge their deaths.   Instead, he had run away from his duty in quivering fear.  This temple is for human beings, not for filthy creatures such as you.   His gaze plunged into the depths of the floor, tears trickling down his cheeks.  He turned to crawl away. 

Gray stringy bonds seized him, holding him still, refusing to let him go.  A child’s bloody face, that of his daughter, swept into his mind – another spirit-child’s face, his young lord.   Inconsolable cries pierced his consciousness; the spirits’ howls whirled around him.  Black hair strands reached out, encircling his throat, tightening their grip.  Your duty is to avenge us, the spirits whispered in his ear. 

His panicked thoughts stretched out.   I am a non-human coward, his mind whispered back.  The encircling bonds pressed tighter.   “No… No!” he screamed aloud.  “I can’t do it! I can’t avenge you!”  His arms struggled uselessly against the capturing strands; his feet scrabbled on the floor.  His screeches contended with his spurting tears and the relentless pressure on his throat.  “I don’t want to die!  I don’t want to die!” 

The demands of the spirit-voices continued.  We are unavenged.   Steel fingers pressed further into his skin.  His screams turned into strangled moans.   “Pl…ease…” his voice sputtered as his helpless limbs flapped feebly.  A gray mist, growing ever darker, began whirling around him.  

A white-hot light exploded inside his mind; the light shattered into a myriad of tiny flame slivers, burning bright crimson-blue.  His body twisted to and fro, his arms furiously pushed against the iron-tight strands holding him.  “I will not die!” his defiant voice sliced into the dank air around him.   Thoughts, strictly forbidden to him, burst into his consciousness.   I am a human being.   He set his gaze straight into those of the grimacing visages.  If you wish to strike me down for thinking such blasphemous thoughts, then go ahead.   

Shivers of his own rage traveled up his hands, through his body.  Images seethed in his mind, the blows and scornful glances on his street in Edo, the blows and mockeries at his clan dojo  – all which he had meekly endured without complaint.  He mind-whispered to the spirits: There are existences far worse than death.  

He found himself kneeling alone, unmolested, in the middle of the temple floor.  The three wraiths, white moving swirls, stood partially hidden behind the calm stone Buddha.  Kingo blinked, then rubbed his eyes.  Lying sheathed on the smooth wooden floor was a daisho -- the two swords whose visions he had seen earlier.  He drew in his breath.  My own two swords.  A picture flashed in this mind – in the pawnshop, placing his two sheath-enclosed blades on the counter.  The ones I deserted.   

Stark terror seized him.  No! No! These swords are not for a non-human such as you.  He drew his arms around his shoulders.  You must go away from here, he gave his strict orders to himself.  Tomorrow, you must keep your street swept clean, so people can go about their business.            

He did not move.  He was kneeling on the floor.  His daisho lay in front of him on a silk cloth, as if awaiting and expecting him.  Watching his own body, seemingly from above, he saw his dust-streaked fingers slowly wrap themselves around his swords, gathering them together.  Warmth flowed through him along with unashamed tears.  The swords’ spirits streamed into his hands and into his heart.  Take your swords, keep and protect them, the spirit-voices told him.  He picked up his swords, bundled them inside the silk cloth.  Use your swords to do your duty… 

Kingo awoke.  He was lying inside his ragged bedding; from the sunlight poking into his face, he knew that it was morning again.  What was that?  Spirits in a temple speaking, telling you to “use your swords to do your duty?”  He shook his head as his eyes traveled over the reed blades of his hut.  He gave a sigh of relief.  None of what he had seen had been real; it had just been one of his dreams.  There were no swords.  A non-human doesn’t have swords, he assured himself.  He hadn’t gone into a temple where outcasts were not allowed.  He yawned, wiped his eyes, pulled his threadbare kimono around himself – it was time for another day.  He reached for his broom that was leaning against the wall.  You know where your duty lies.          

He started to rise up from his bed.  His foot tripped against a hard object.  He paused, glancing down.  Wrapped inside his bedding was a cloth bundle.  His heart began to race, his palms felt moist.  He knelt down and hurriedly unwrapped the bundle, found the silken cover inside.  He pulled the silk apart; a pair of sheathed swords lay inside.  Shivers traveled through his shoulders in waves.  These were his swords.    

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Swirling snowflakes drifted from the clouded gray skies.  People, coming out of the temple and going in, were making their end-of-year offerings.  There were peddlers, housewives with children, merchants, and craftsmen – and a sprinkling of samurai officials.  The path was clear, sparkling with the frost.  On the side, a street sweeper, bundled up in his rags against the bitter cold, calmly moved his broom back and forth; he was a non-human, so no one paid him any attention.   He cast his glance down, as was proper, while he continued his work.   His eyes, glittering-dark as burning coals, searched the crowds for his enemies.