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Tales of the Ghost Sword
By Hideyuki Kikuchi, Ian MacDonald
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2001 Hideyuki Kikuchi
All rights reserved.
On his way back from the castle, Obori Shinnosuke dropped in at the home of his former colleague, Sakakibara Hisama.
Hisama was well known around the fief for his skill in the Hoki style of sword fighting. But his genius had proved his undoing. Having lost his job with the clan's Criminal Investigation Division, he now made his living teaching swordsmanship and calligraphy to neighborhood children. His former colleagues, fearful lest his prodigious talent should go to waste, repeatedly appealed to their superiors, and they in turn to the clan higher-ups, to have him reinstated. But to no avail. His offence — giving his lordship's son a sound thrashing when he showed up at the dojo looking for a sparring partner — was simply too grave.
To make matters worse, Hisama, at the tender age of twenty-four, was as prickly as an old geezer.
"Be patient, your time will come," consoled one of his former colleagues.
"Spare me your clichés," retorted Hisama, showing him the door. "I wait for no man!"
His former boss, Inspector Shoji Bannai, conspired with the department accountant to secretly pay Hisama a monthly retainer of ten ryo. But when the Inspector sent one of his men over to Hisama's house with the first installment, the former detective shouted: "I accept your concern, but after the way I've been treated I'll be damned if I'll accept the clan's money — now get out!"
"Well, if that's the way you feel ..." replied the man, biting his tongue.
No sooner had he spoken than Hisama, reaching for his sword, yelled, "I don't need your or anyone else's pity!"
In the end, everyone agreed they should just leave him alone for a while.
The fact that it was "a while" and not "forever" testified to the young man's enduring popularity with his former colleagues. Once the furor had died down, they again began discussing ways of helping him out.
Popularity with his colleagues was one thing, marriage was another. Hisama was a confirmed bachelor. What's more, it was well known he wasn't particularly fastidious about either his appearance or his housekeeping.
The man who had gone to Hisama's house in Toyacho to try to deliver the money related how, while standing in the doorway, the stench of sweat had assaulted his nostrils. When Hisama finally emerged he looked as though he hadn't shaved or changed his kimono for days and his face and clothes were smeared with grime. He showed the man through to his room, where the bedding had not been put away and dusty piles of books were strewn across the floor. The man said that in his rush to leave he'd practically had to claw his way out of the room.
And yet Hisama could easily have married if he'd wanted. Tall, fair-skinned, ruggedly handsome, and much admired for his skill as a swordsman, Hisama at one time had had no shortage of marriage proposals, some of them extremely attractive. Sae, the daughter of Sugisawa Mondo, his lordship's chief adviser, for one, was so pretty she could turn heads all over town. But Hisama had rejected the proposal saying he couldn't afford to keep such a beauty.
Then there was his colleague Sahashi Kyosuke's younger sister, who could not only read Chinese but had been running the household ever since their mother's death. But Hisama had rejected the offer in an extraordinary manner, telling Kyosuke, who was exceedingly handsome himself: "Surely you don't expect me to marry a woman whose brother is better looking than I am? From morning to night it'll be 'But Brother says this' and 'Brother says that' echoing like a damned mantra in my ears!"
If anything, such churlishness seemed to endear Hisama to his colleagues all the more.
"We've got to find Sakakibara a wife," one of them would say, arms folded in thought, to his comrades.
"Yes, but ..."
Another of them would invariably remind the others of the previous two attempts to marry off Hisama, and that would put an end to the discussion.
Actually, Hisama had been married once (as anyone would have guessed from the fact that he no longer lived at home with his parents). Exactly what sort of woman could pass muster with so notorious a crank was for a time a subject of much speculation throughout the clan.
As it turned out, she'd been quite ordinary, neither beautiful nor highly educated. Nonetheless, the couple had spent three happy years together before she was carried off by an illness.
"No doubt it's because Hisama was so fond of her that he's refused to marry again," his friends concluded, nodding silently to themselves.
Then about two weeks ago someone had broken the news:
"There's a woman living at Sakakibara's house!"
In those two weeks, the rumor had spread like wildfire among Hisama's former colleagues.
But when people asked what sort of woman, the reply was either: "Err, well ... from what I've heard, she's a merchant's daughter, seventeen or eighteen, with cheeks as rosy as cherry blossoms."
"Rumor has it she's a woman of a certain age ... a widow cast aside by another man."
In short, it was as good as anyone's guess.
Obori Shinnosuke's purpose in visiting Hisama today was to get to the bottom of these rumors.
To Obori's surprise, Hisama appeared at the door immediately.
"Oh, it's you," he said, making no attempt to hide his annoyance.
Obori was undeterred. On the contrary, seeing Hisama actually put him in a good mood. Though his face had become gaunt, Hisama's general expression was cheerful. He'd clearly shaved and washed his hair recently.
"Quickly state your business and leave."
"Come, that's no way to greet an old friend," said Obori, stepping inside. "I've been out drinking and my throat is parched. Since I was in the neighborhood, I just thought I'd stop in for some water. I won't be a minute."
This approach disarmed even the likes of Hisama. It wasn't for nothing that his colleagues had said that if anyone could handle Sakakibara Hisama it was Obori.
Observing that Obori had already taken off his swords, Hisama seemed to give in to the inevitable. "Damn drunkard!" he muttered, cursing his visitor as he showed him through to an inner room.
So it's true! Obori marveled quietly to himself as he glanced around the room. Never in his life had he known a bachelor pad to look so tidy. The bedding was folded and all of Hisama's books were stacked neatly in one corner. There wasn't as much as a speck of dust on the tatami.
He wanted to ask, did you do this, but he quickly stopped himself.
He felt he might go insane if Hisama answered "yes."
"Wait here," commanded Hisama. "I'll bring you some water. Drink it quickly and go."
As he watched Hisama disappear toward the kitchen, Obori reflected on the situation: There was a woman living in the house — that much was certain. She seemed to be out at the moment, but one could infer her existence from the order that prevailed everywhere one looked. True, Hisama's annoyance was a bit odd, but given his personality, if he had suddenly gone and gotten married again, he would prefer having his fingernails pulled out to introducing his new bride to a former colleague.
My business here is done, thought Obori. I'll just drink the water and go.
Hisama returned with a ladle of water.
Obori took the ladle and downed the water in one gulp. "Boy is that good!" he said, handing the ladle back to Hisama. "My stomach feels like new again."
"What's so funny?" demanded Hisama, frowning.
"There's more to you than meets the eye, isn't there, lover boy?" said Obori, a big grin on his face.
"Whose eye? I won't have you making slanderous accusations. Now go."
"I know what I saw," said Obori confidently, in no mood to back down.
"And what exactly did you see?" "A woman walking along the corridor; she disappeared into the kitchen — just before you returned with the water. I only caught a glimpse of her profile, but she's obviously a beauty — a merchant's daughter, judging from her clothes. C'mon, why don't you introduce me to her?"
"There's no one," asserted Hisama, "in this house but me."
"There you go again. Unfortunately, I saw her."
"Whatever you think you saw, it must have been a hallucination. Now get out. If you don't I'll ..."
Hisama turned toward the stand in a corner of the room upon which his swords rested.
"All right, all right — I'm going. But if you've taken up with a woman, it's best you introduce her to us sooner rather than later."
"How dare you!" Hisama lunged his long body toward the sword stand.
Obori bolted for the front door, stopping only to slip into his straw sandals before racing out of the house.
Hisama stood inside the front door listening to the sound of his friend's footsteps receding down the street. After stepping outside to make sure Obori was gone, he returned to the room and opened the shoji he'd shut earlier.
"Sayo," he called out toward the kitchen.
The voice came from behind him.
He turned. Standing in a corner of the room was a young woman with an unusually pale complexion.
Hisama thought she'd probably be pleased to know that Obori had adjudged her a beauty based solely on a glimpse of her slender aquiline nose. But when had this beauty of his returned?
"Our unwanted guest has gone."
"Thank goodness," the young woman answered.
Her manner of speech was that of a merchant's daughter, but her voice was solemn. There wasn't the least hint of a smile on her face.
"People have started to notice. You'll have to disappear."
"I have been during the day. That's why your friend didn't see me." "He said he did."
"Apparently that happens sometimes."
"I can't afford for it to happen at all. Once people start to talk, one never knows how far it will go. It'd be most inconvenient if the Chief Inspector should come to hear of it."
The brilliant swordsman folded his arms and looked at the girl whom he called Sayo. Her pallid, lifeless face turned a shade paler.
"Please don't worry," she said. "Until you have helped my soul attain nirvana, I promise I won't get in anybody's way."
Her voice was like ice water running down Hisama's back.
Despite his first impulse, Obori himself saw to it that word of Hisama's new wife went no further.
The next day, when he reported for work, Obori overheard one of his colleagues, a man by the name of Tamura, say something that gave him pause:
"Hey, you know that rumor about a spirit who haunts the riverbank?" said Tamura. "No one's seen her lately."
A spirit, huh? Obori thought. Maybe ...
Though the job of the detectives in the Criminal Investigation Division was to root out malfeasance among their fellow samurai, the nature of their work required Obori and his colleagues to keep abreast of what was going on in the world outside the castle, amidst the merchants and other members of the lower classes. Tamura first brought back news of a ghost down by the Okawa River. Half of his colleagues had gotten a good laugh out of it; the other half had dismissed it as nonsense. Obori himself had been in the latter camp, but the rumor seemed to be true after all.
One of Tamura and Obori's colleagues — a man by the name of Hachiya Magokuro — an expert in the Raijin Shinkyo style of sword fighting, had set off for the riverbank where the sightings had occurred. This had taken place two months ago. Obori did not know what had transpired there, but the following day Hachiya had not reported for duty and had stayed away from work for ten days. On the eleventh day, when he finally appeared, he looked a different man. Seeing his wasted appearance, the other detectives on duty jumped to their feet in surprise.
At the time, no one dared ask Hachiya about the cause of his transformation. As it turned out, they didn't have to. That night Obori had gone out drinking with his colleagues, Hachiya among them. In the bar that night there was a great lush by the name of Yasumoto attached to the Minor Works Corps. Emboldened by liquor, Yasumoto questioned Hachiya about what had happened down by the river. Everyone held their breath and pricked up their ears.
"I saw her," said Hachiya.
A hush fell over the bar.
It was an entire month before Hachiya — apparently through the miraculous power of prayer — was his normal self again.
Then, four days after Obori visited Hisama's house, Hachiya stopped showing up for work again. Given what had taken place before, this time Hachiya's boss personally went to look in on the truant detective.
This is what Hachiya, looking pale, told him:
"S-s-she's ... at S-S-Sakakibara's house."
His teeth wouldn't stop clattering.
Inspector Shoji ordered Obori to go around to Hisama's house to investigate.
"I can't help feeling this strange business is all just nonsense," Obori's boss had said. "But since it concerns one of our own, we'd better get to the bottom of it."
Hachiya apparently had an acquaintance who lived in the same neighborhood as Hisama. It had been while on his way home after visiting this friend that he'd seen the woman standing in the garden as he passed Hisama's house.
"Hachiya had gone to see this friend to announce his recovery and to thank him for looking after him," continued Inspector Shoji. "Now he's back where he started — ironic, isn't it?" Obori bowed his head silently.
OBORI DECIDED to stake out Hisama's house.
For six days he saw no sign of the woman. That itself seemed odd — to Obori anyway. He thought of Hisama's tidy room and well-groomed appearance. No, there had to be a woman living in the house.
During the day, children would come to Hisama's house for tutoring in calligraphy or swordsmanship. Obori would see them in the garden brandishing bamboo swords or wooden sticks. In between lessons Hisama would occasionally leave the house to run errands. Twice while Hisama was out, Obori snuck inside and had a look around.
Not a soul ...
Hisama used the eight-mat room at the back of the house for giving calligraphy lessons. The children had recently gone home; the room was a mess. Obori waited about ten minutes. Still, there was not a sound inside the house. Perhaps the woman had gone home to visit her parents.
After watching the house for about ten days, with no sign of the woman having returned, Obori snuck into the house again. Some children had come for their lessons the previous day. But apart from Hisama's bedding, which still lay on the floor in disarray, the rest of the house attested to the invisible hand of his phantom housekeeper. There was only one possible conclusion: the woman was there but Obori could not see her, and she only appeared after dark.
Late one night, two days later, Obori paid Hisama another visit. This time, the moment Hisama saw his friend standing at the door, the annoyed look on his face changed to resignation. To Obori, it had, so the cat's out of the bag, is it, written all over it.
Once they were seated face-to-face in Hisama's room, Obori announced triumphantly: "I just saw her."
From his tone it was clear he would not brook any more evasiveness on Hisama's part. At last he'd spotted the woman standing in the garden by the side of the house. He immediately barged in and confronted Hisama.
"Oh, yeah?" grunted Hisama sullenly.
"She's a looker — no doubt about it. But her beauty's not of this world. Her skin is like marble. Is she a ... spirit?"
"Why don't you ask her yourself?"
"I intend to. Where is she?" "Right behind you."
Obori whirled around. A pale white face hovered before his eyes. He cried out and reached for his sword on the floor by his right knee.
"Stop! It's useless," shouted Hisama, but quickly added, "On second thought, go ahead and try. That'll save me wasting my breath — you'll find out soon enough whether she's a ghost or not."
It was all Obori could do to keep his teeth from rattling in his mouth. "Easier said than done ..."
The woman's beautiful countenance was tilted down at the floor. Her eyes turned upward in their sockets to stare at him. It was a look his wife often gave him when she was especially annoyed. Only this was a thousand times scarier.
"Do you know her?" he finally managed to ask Hisama.
Obori's hand remained clasped to his sword; he couldn't have let go even if he'd wanted to.
"Then why has she come? Don't tell me you —"
"Don't be absurd!" Hisama snapped. "I haven't killed anyone." The color had drained from his face — and for good reason.
Excerpted from Tales of the Ghost Sword by Hideyuki Kikuchi, Ian MacDonald. Copyright © 2001 Hideyuki Kikuchi. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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