I. Burning towers of Edo and asphyxiated cats
The day Hiroki and Fumio found the cat and its litter in the trash NHK News broadcast a fire raging in Kawagoe’s Old Town district. Choppers circled around the building, a wooden Edo-era bell tower, as it was reduced to ashes. Survived B-52 fire-bombs only to succumb to a careless cigarette ember the reporter said, speaking breathlessly into the camera. Fumio watched as the flames burned a white-hot hole into his television screen. Furious sparks spewed ten meters up into the air, and he felt afraid to even look at them. He immediately shut off the TV and went to work.
He was still dwelling on that fire as they made their rounds through Horinouchi-machi in Omiya several stops from the end of the neighborhood and their mid-morning break. It was already hot. Though the forecaster hadn’t yet called for an end to the rainy season, it had been sunny for days. The stench of mildew and sweat permeated his uniform.
The cat and its kittens — only days old it seemed to Fumio — were found tightly wrapped in clear plastic atop a pile of garbage bags. Clumps of bloody hair matted the insides. Scuff marks on the outside of the thick plastic indicated the animals had been covered first and then beaten, probably to eliminate blood spatter, and left to suffocate.
Fumio’s partner Hiroki was disgusted.
“Pigs,” he said throwing the first wrapping, the one with the dead litter, into the truck.
Fumio noticed the edge in his voice. Hiroki was hung over and smelled of soured whiskey.
“If I ever find out who did this,” Hiroki continued, “I’ll suffocate them.”
Fumio remained quiet and let his partner ramble. It only made things worse if he said anything.
Like pouring kerosene onto a burning tower.
Fumio watched the houses passing by slowly. Their facades sagged behind cinder-block walls and discretely tortured bonsai. He knew he should be sympathetic, but these cats were hardly the worst thing they’d ever found.
Together — and Hiroki had come on only a few weeks before Fumio — they’d found mutilated rabbits with their ears and paws hacked off and eyes pried out; a severed finger — probably from a penitent boryokudan; and rotted organs packed in Styrofoam with the ice melted. They found raw-materials for explosives, a real bomb that turned out to be defused, and flammable liquids in discolored glass jars.
Lots of dead birds, too. Most appeared to be poisoned. The worst was a crow with its wings and claws crushed, and its head and beak smashed into pieces. Though he wasn’t unsympathetic to whoever killed it — they were territorial and took vicious swipes at Hiroki and Fumio and even shat on them — the brutality was still shocking.
At first the stench of decomposing animals and body parts had been tough to take, but Fumio had gotten used to it. Every now and then Hiroki would still vomit on the side of the street. Fumio pretended to not notice.
Some of the things they found were good, though. Hiroki once found a gold earring and 150,000 yen wrapped in a green and yellow furoshiki. They found antiques of all sorts, including beautiful wooden shelving and carved cross-beams from a house torn down to make way for a Lawson convenience store. Hiroki stashed some of these into the cab. One segment of a crossbeam with a tsuru crane carved in it was still leaning behind Hiroki’s seat. Fumio imagined its wings beating and snapping like white sails over rice fields as the engine knocked and pinged at startup.
“Someday someone will thank us for that,” Hiroki once explained.
They even found a baby — a real live one — presumably left by the mother. Fumio always wondered what happened to the baby girl. She was so beautiful: wrinkled frog-face and pink toes and fingers and splotchy red cheeks lit by an inner flint.
Of course it scared Fumio to think about what would have happened if they hadn’t come across that baby sooner. Crows circled the larger garbage sections in these neighborhoods. He shuddered to think what they might have done to an infant.
“Hiroki-san?” Fumio ventured as Hiroki drove the truck down the street to the next stop.
Hiroki didn’t answer. He was staring ahead at the road with a scowl on his face. Fumio figured he was still brooding over the cats.
“That baby. What do you think happen–”
“You don’t think the moth–”
Hiroki interrupted with a short staccato laugh. It felt like dry matches striking against his skin.
“The mother?” Hiroki sounded incredulous. “Don’t be stupid, Fumio. The mother was just some whore. Hope they found her and trashed her.”
Hiroki shook his head and looked askance at Fumio.
“But we saved that baby, didn’t we Hiroki-san?” Fumio felt the tingle of heat in his fingertips. He tried to contain it, breathing in slowly and deeply. “We’re good people, aren’t we, Hiroki-san?”
Hiroki grunted as he pulled the truck in front of the small concrete compartments holding another mound of trash bags left out for burnable trash day.
“As good as any, I guess,” he said.
Once Hiroki stopped the truck, they got out and began placing the bags into the back of the truck. It was tough work in the hot morning sun, and they both broke into a sweat as they removed the garbage from its area.
The rest of the stops along the street through Horinouchi were uneventful. Hiroki even cracked a few jokes as they drove on. By the time they were on the second to last stop Fumio felt confident that Hiroki would soon forget about the cats completely.
When Hiroki wasn’t dwelling on things, Fumio told himself, he could be an alright guy.
II. Round One with Little Bīto Takeshi
They pulled up to the last stop before their mid-morning break. It was different than the other stops, which were low, three-walled cinder-block areas roped off and covered over with blue-green netting to deter the crows. This stop, however, was at the end of an alley and situated between an orchard and a large Edo-era farmhouse. The spot was usually piled up with bags of leaves, cut grass or discarded, half-eaten fruit from the orchard.
But today front-and-center in the alley was a dumpster. Dented and rusting along its sides, its wheels were caked in mud. It looked as if it must have been dragged through the orchard grounds. Fumio could see the tracks in the mud extending from the far side of the orchard and into the alley.
Fumio got out of the truck quickly and headed, as he was supposed to, around to the back left side of the truck to wait for Hiroki, who, as the sempai, would get out and come around to unlatch the bar. This formality was always followed. The protocol was designed to ensure that both workers remained respectful not only to each other but to the neighborhoods in which they worked. Once Hiroki opened the lock both would bow in the same direction toward the closest houses. Only then would they begin to gather the trash.
However, Hiroki hadn’t yet cut the engine. Something was keeping him again. Fumio wondered if he weren’t still bothered by the cat, even though his mood had brightened over the last twenty minutes. Sometimes Hiroki would text messages to his ex. Fumio didn’t know the nature of these messages, but he knew sometimes that Hiroki did this on the sly. He’d heard that Hiroki was supposed to keep his distance from her.
Standing by the exhaust in the hot sun was making Fumio feel unwell. The fumes parched his throat and his stomach lurched, but he wouldn’t move until his sempai was ready.
There was a buzz at his ears that resolved into words he knew: trash man. Fumio fixated on that buzz. It sounded like a hornet skimming just above the surface of overripe, bruised fruit.
“Yo. Trash man,” the buzz said again. It felt like the vibration was now in his ear. “Down here.”
Fumio looked around but didn’t see anything. He wondered if insects could talk. He thought he saw something moving about in the trees, but it turned out to be a sparrow or a squirrel or something.
“Huh?” Fumio finally blurted out. “That you, Hiroki?”
“Huh? That you, Hiroki?” The deep voice mimicked Fumio’s surprise. “You the village idiot? Don’t understand Japanese? LOOK DOWN.”
Fumio looked toward the ground at the piles of trash bags next to a large beat-up dumpster, but he still didn’t see anything.
“Not all the way down, trash man. The dumpster.”
Then Fumio saw it. Just under a few plain cardboard boxes that looked like a tiny city block, a little man in a black suit and razor-thin tie stood at about chest-level holding a small katana in his left hand. He held it loosely against his left shoulder.
He thought at first that he was looking at a plastic action figure. It was about the same size as one, but it was capable of minute, precise actions. As Fumio watched it speaking to him, he was transfixed by the motion of its lips and its steady blinking. It had weird jarring movements with its shoulders, and its face and eyes seemed to twitch every few seconds. It looked exactly like Bīto Takeshi, the comedian, except he was only twenty-five centimeters tall. He was missing an eye and both pinkies on his hands.
“You think I look like your idiot drunk friend?” the miniature Bīto Takeshi asked him.
Fumio thought it was one of those rhetorical-type questions — similar to the ones Hiroki said aloud to him — so he was surprised when a rotten piece of persimmon flew out at him and landed on his shirt and mini Bīto Takeshi yelled at him again.
“Sorry,” Fumio said, starting to bow until he caught himself. “No. I mean. I don’t think so?”
“That’s right. I don’t. Baka yarou.” A jagged smirk appeared on little Bīto Takeshi’s face. “There isn’t time, so this is what will happen, trash man: This week and every week from now on you’re going to leave this dumpster right here where it is. This is my territory now.”
“Uh…” Fumio tried to speak but found himself unable to form the words. He felt something twisting his thoughts together into a giant knot.
“Answer like a man, trash man.”
“H-h-,” he sputtered.
“H-hai,” Fumio finally got out.
The smirk got wider, reaching the edges of a smile. “That’s better,” he said.
“But…we are obligated to take what’s in it.”
The jagged smirk on Bīto Takeshi’s face disappeared. “You touch it, trash man, and I swear on Tenjinyama that I will stick this katana in your eye and make it bleed!”
Little Bīto Takeshi punctured the cardboard box with his sword.
“I don’t know what to do,” Fumio said weakly.
The engine had finally sputtered off and a plume of thick smoke enveloped his head. He began to sweat. He looked this way and that, unsure what to do or in which direction to move.
“Move the bags over there,” the Bīto Takeshi doll-man indicated a few bags that been hidden behind the dumpster. “Close the lid and tell your partner you emptied it.”
Without thinking Fumio slammed the lid of the dumpster shut. He took a few of the trash bags, and, instead of waiting for Hiroki as usual, he unlatched the door and threw them into the truck.
Hiroki came around back, his phone still in his hand.
He froze. “Hey, asshole, what are you doing?” he asked. “You’re supposed to wait. Baka.”
“Sorry, Hiroki. I forgot,” Fumio said quietly and then bowed very low. “It will not happen again.”
Hiroki squinted his eyes at Fumio.
“So the dumpster is emptied out, and these are ready to go.” Fumio pointed to the bags still on the ground.
“I don’t see how you can forget.”
Fumio bowed low again to Hiroki.
“There is no excuse for my behavior,” Fumio said with as much sincerity as he could muster.
“OK. OK,” he said, shifting the weight from his left foot to his right and dismissing Fumio with a wave of his hand. “Just don’t do it again.”
It took them another five minutes to clear the rest of the bags as Fumio took care to avoid the dumpster with the strange Bīto Takeshi doll-man watching inside.
“So, yesterday, I got a letter from my wife — I mean ex-wife,” Hiroki corrected himself as they pulled the truck over to the side of the road, “The bitch won’t let me see my daughter. Says I stink. The stain of ‘the profession,’ as she calls it, is too much for our daughter’s standing.”
He spat bitterly out the cab window. “More like her standing.”
Sitting in the truck cab, Fumio took out his bento from the backpack he kept on the floor by his feet. He took a sip of green tea in a small PET bottle. Hiroki was still cursing his wife, calling her a heartless bitch, but then, just minutes later, wishing they could reconcile and wondering how it all turned to shit.
Fumio tried to listen. He nodded his head every so often saying Is that so? but continued to brood on that strange doll-man in the trash.
He sat in silence for the remainder of the break. The vision of the helicopters flying above Kawagoe came back to him. The flames burned deep white holes into his retinas. He wiped his brow and took another sip of his green tea. Hiroki started the engine, and they moved on to the next neighborhood.
III. (The Art of) War and Peace (of Mind)
Three nights a week Fumio practiced iaido, the way of the sword, at a local training center in downtown Omiya. It wasn’t the clothes or even the sword itself that appealed to him. Something else spoke to him through the centuries and calmed him whenever he looked up at the divine swordsman Sanji Taisho –flames licking around his grotesque head –- guarding the entrance to the dojo. Wielding a fiery sword into the heavens, those ancient glittering eyes remained fixed like some twisted Angel of History upon an unseen concatenating future wreckage point.
Fumio donned his sword. He imagined himself a blind swordsman cutting down those who deserved it. If he refused to look — to be swayed by the surface falsities of the world — he could avoid its ticking traps. And he would become Zen in motion.
As soon as he began the nukitsuke — a difficult maneuver that required him to draw his sword in one quick fluid motion — the small man in the dumpster appeared in his mind. He looked like a yakuza. The missing fingers and the lost eye were surely evidence of that. He wondered whether he could actually poke out his eye. Probably just bluffing.
Unsatisfied with the result, he tried the nukitsuke again. This time he dropped his sword. He picked it up quickly hoping no one had noticed.
He drew it again a third time and the sword took another wild curve, slipping slightly under Fumio’s sweaty grip. He stopped and took a deep breath. He wiped his palms on his robe.
He tried to remove Bīto Takeshi from his mind, but throughout the whole session he kept thinking of the odd incident. What would he do during their next rounds? What if someone complained about the dumpster not being emptied? This was bound to cause both him and Hiroki a lot of trouble, Fumio was sure of it.
He noticed then that his sensei, Goto, was watching him from afar. He gave Fumio an inscrutable nod.
At the end of his practice session, he disrobed and packed up his materials. He wrapped the iaito practice sword in a white linen cloth and put it in its case.
“Yamamoto-san,” Goto called out to him as he left. “Just a moment, if you please. I’d like to speak about your progress.”
Goto led him into the hallway just below the picture of Sanji Taisho. Beetles crawled along the door below a naked light-bulb. Moths swirled around the bulb, batting against it with steady thwacks until circling, endlessly looping, back into the shadows.
“You were very careless today,” he said, looking directly into Fumio’s eyes as if trying to penetrate his brain. “You must focus your mind.”
“You will hurt others otherwise,” he said. “And yourself, as well.”
He bowed as deeply as he could muster. As his eyes faced the floor, he noticed his sensei‘s well-manicured toenails and expensive leather sandals. Goto was still talking as Fumio raised his head. He held Fumio in his curious but unsettling gaze for twenty more minutes.
Goto pointed to a framed print hanging on the wall opposite Sanji Taisho.
“Look here,” Goto said, “I’ve always admired this ukiyoe of Kyoko’s — I’m sure you’re familiar with his series on the Japanese-Russo War — because, in essence, Yamamoto-san, it shows us all how to live.”
Fumio looked at the picture. A cavalry officer was attempting to the rally troops lurking cautiously behind him. The mounted officer pointed his saber at the enemy, ordering the foot-soldiers to charge. The horse itself appeared ready to trample the corpse of a dead Russian soldier whose bayonet and hat lay strewn across the foreground. Examining it closely for the first time, Fumio was suddenly taken with the man’s courage, quietly envying the graceful thrust of his sword and the daimonic expression on his face.
“You’re but one will in the mass-movements of millions of people, Yamamoto-san,” Goto said, “but you can contribute in your own way if you are living within the moment. If you try to comprehend the moment, like those cowardly soldiers crouching in the back there, you are no longer of it.”
Fumio stared at the insects crawling up and down the wall toward the light bulb. Goto told Fumio how the paradox of history always fooled people.
“It’s impossible,” he explained, “to know the interior of even the smallest, least-known participants in these events, yet they are the arbiters of real change. See how this bullet is drawn suspended in the air? Perhaps it will hit our hero, perhaps not. But he is of this moment. We should be so lucky.”
Fumio nodded as if he understood.
“Tolstoy in his misguided ways showed us this, too. His later fanaticism was not an anomaly, you see, just a different manifestation of this understanding.”
Fumio didn’t quite understand what all this had to with iaido, if anything, but he listened intently. He felt his neck tense up as he tried to concentrate. A headache was sure to come later.
Goto paused. “I assume you’re familiar with the Russian master, are you not?”
“Ah. I see,” Goto said, frowning just slightly. He paused but then smiled suddenly, his eyes still peering intently into Fumio’s. “Until next time, then.”
Fumio left as quickly as he could, riding the Tobu-Noda line train back to his apartment in Nanasato. He felt depressed for some reason, and, until the train reached his stop, stared absently at a large advertisement for FIRE can coffee.
IV. Round Two: Burakumin in the house
“My bitch ex-wife,” Hiroki was explaining to Fumio, “got another restraining order against me. Can you believe this shit? Now I can’t even see my own daughter at her school anymore.”
It was late morning, and it was already sweltering. Hiroki spat out the window.
“Know this, Fumio: we’re worse than burakumin.”
Fumio sat in silence. They were nearing the dumpster. The memory of the little man had faded over the last couple days, but he still felt the clutch of apprehension in his stomach as he sat in the truck. How could he convince Hiroki to leave the dumpster alone this time? He didn’t know what to do.
Fumio leaned over trying to alleviate some of the pressure in his stomach. When he got nervous the gas got stuck in him, and he felt sharp pangs like a knife in his gut.
“Hey, Fumio,” Hiroki said suddenly. “You alright? You’re starting to sweat.”
Fumio realized he was drenched. There was sweat trickling down his armpits into the flanks of his torso. It felt slimy and slightly cool.
They were now about 20 meters from the dumpster.
“Yeah. Just something I ate, maybe,” he said, groaning through the pain.
“You wanna stop and puke? No shame in that. I do it all the time. Do it by the trash dumpster, though.”
Hiroki stopped the truck a couple meters beyond the dumpster. Its lid was open. The same piled-up boxes that resembled a city block in miniature — Fumio noticed there were even little square holes for windows and small walkways — were still in the same position. Looking at it made him feel weak.
Getting out of the cab his legs felt rubbery as he touched the ground. He stumbled over to the curb and retched on the sidewalk. He sat there and tried to breathe in deep. Then he got to his feet.
What he saw made him yell out in fear: Hiroki was about to move the boxes in the dumpster. One hand grabbed at the nearest box, which looked like a miniature replica of a guard tower at the Emperor’s Palace.
“No!” he shouted at Hiroki. “Don’t touch it!”
Hiroki looked over at him confused. Then he looked into the dumpster and his eyes opened wide. He shouted out in pain, watching in horror as his hand began spurting out blood.
“I told you not to do it, chimpira,” Bīto Takeshi said to Hiroki, “but you just had to defy me, didn’t you?”
He looked up into the sky, shaking his head. “Why doesn’t anybody listen to me?”
Hiroki stumbled backwards and fell atop a large bag of burnable garbage. He lay there holding his hand and shaking. He stared up at Bīto Takeshi.
The little man took out a gun with a barrel about the length of a matchstick and pointed it at Hiroki’s eye. He was going to blind him at that range, Fumio realized. That little doll-man thing had to be stopped.
“Eye for an eye, trash man baka yarou,” Fumio heard little Bīto Takeshi yell out.
Fumio grabbed a bruised persimmon from the nearest trash bag and flung it. It flew apart in the air, but a small bit hit the little man right in the chest. The force knocked him over. Fumio jumped up and into the dumpster, overturning a few of the cardboard structures. The little man was right there in front of him standing atop a large cardboard platform that had been neatly interlocked with other pieces of cardboard. It was an elaborate little shelter, almost like a doll’s house, resting atop several slats of thick plywood. The piece of persimmon had been sliced into four or five thin wedges.
It smelled as if something had died in the dumpster.
“What are you gonna do now, eh trash man?” Bīto Takeshi’s face twitched as if in pain. He swung his sword at Fumio.
“Stop it, little Bīto Takeshi.”
Fumio saw several human fingers in the dumpster. They were ash-colored and crusted with blood, but they weren’t Hiroki’s. They pointed this way and that — hither and thither –- toward all directions, indicating nothing and everything at the same time.
“Fuck with me and I’ll cut off your ears and tongue just like I cut off your drunkard friend’s fingers,” Bīto Takeshi said laughing. “This thing is small but sharp. It can pop out your eyes, too.”
“Stop it, Bīto Takeshi. Or I’ll…”
The little man grinned. “Or you’ll what?” It made him look like a miniature piranha. He lowered his katana slightly.
“Or I’ll burn you!”
“Now we’re talking, trash man,” he said. He struck his sword up into the air and gave out a deep laugh that sounded like crackling flames and belching smoke.
He disappeared behind the miniature Emperor’s Palace, leaving Fumio to deal with Hiroki, who was now moaning and bleeding all over himself. As Fumio crawled out of the dumpster, he spied Hiroki’s severed fingers on the ground. The droplets of blood that had fallen from them looked like fiery chrysanthemums in full bloom.
V. Conflagration Nation
As soon as he wrapped Hiroki’s fingers in a cloth, Fumio guided Hiroki to the passenger’s seat and took the wheel of the truck. He’d never driven the truck before so it took him a while to get it moving. He shoved it into first, grinding the gears with a gut-shaking crunch. The truck screeched and lurched until it finally sputtered out into the street.
Hiroki’s head bobbed against the cab’s door frame. Blood had already spread down his arm in juicy streaks as he held it up in the air. He had lost a bit of blood, and his face appeared ashen. He kept looking at Fumio wildly.
“Wh…” he tried to get out of the truck, but Fumio grabbed his arm.
“Shh. Hiroki,” he said softly. “Don’t talk.”
As Fumio drove, he was surprised at how weak Hiroki looked. He must really have lost a lot of blood, he thought. He looked down at the cloth holding Hiroki’s fingers. A medallion of blood seeped into the cloth.
Hiroki was in shock by the time the doctor in the ER could get to him. Fumio unfolded the cloth to show the fingers to the doctor. The doctor said they would try to refasten them.
When the doctor asked how it happened, Fumio explained that they got severed in the back door of the truck as they were putting trash away. The doctor looked at him strangely but didn’t say anything.
At least I got the fingers, Fumio thought.
Fumio didn’t stay in the hospital. As soon as he could, he left Hiroki on his gurney and headed to his apartment. Once there, he rummaged around for his instruments and other things he’d kept around for a time like this. He picked up his katana case, and he was out the door.
Fumio felt an intense anger — one he hadn’t felt for quite some time — begin to rise from his gut. It was time to bring back the flame, he said to himself, and that brought a big smile to his face as he walked down the stairs from the third floor and into the truck parked out front.
Fumio tore through the neighborhood. His velocity scared away a Murder of crows strutting in the road. He heard a thud as the truck clipped one of the slower, stupider ones. Upon reaching the dumpster, he screeched the truck to a halt. Then he jumped out looking around wildly for Bīto Takeshi.
Fumio saw him right away standing atop the highest box in the dumpster. He immediately smiled at Fumio as if he had been expecting him.
“You back for more? Eh, trash man?” he taunted Fumio. “You gonna try an’ burn me just like you said?”
Fumio removed the sword from its case and protective cloth and proceeded to take wild swipes at the tiny figure. He was a fast little bastard. He avoided all of Fumio’s advances and thrusts. He even got a slice of Fumio’s hand. The cut bled down across his wrist. It only made Fumio angrier.
“That looks like a practice sword,” Bīto Takeshi pointed out. “Is that thing even sharpened?”
Bīto Takeshi started laughing. “You’re gonna kill me with that butter knife? That’d be a first.”
Fumio took multiple swipes. He knocked over the boxes. A few toppled around the small man. He picked up more pieces of rotten food: a banana peel, another bruised persimmon, the cut ends of leeks. He flung them all into the dumpster.
By this point Bīto Takeshi was jumping around and yelling whoo! whoo! whoo! He brandished his sword like the cavalry officer in Goto’s picture, taunting Fumio to come after him. The cut end of one of the leeks got impaled on Bīto Takeshi’s katana like a dreadlocked albino’s shrunken head.
Fumio was now in a rage. He couldn’t hold it back any more. The red bloom was growing stronger before his eyes. He grabbed a small canister from his bag. A brown-stained hand towel stuck out from its top end.
Fumio pulled a lighter out of his pocket and lit up the end of the hand-towel. He threw the canister into the dumpster, just barely missing Bīto Takeshi’s head, who stopped and stared wide-eyed at Fumio. It was silent as they both stared at other.
He smelled the smoke first, but moments later the flames appeared, tentatively, crackling from below the boxes like rosy-fingered Amaterasu rising from the sea, until they became brighter and clearer and angrier.
Fumio ran toward Bīto Takeshi and swatted him with the severed flap of a kuroneko takkyubin cardboard box, pushing him back toward the flames. Fumio took out another container, opened it, and then threw its contents into the dumpster. The flames caught the liquid and whooshed up over Fumio’s head. A ball of flame and a wall of heat lunged upward and outward to the sky.
The little man was trapped. He looked right and left, then back at the flames rising behind him and once again to Fumio. He jumped out of the dumpster right toward Fumio, thinking, perhaps, to surprise him. It didn’t work. Fumio caught him and thrust him into his bag.
The bag writhed and shook as if full of snakes. A little hole appeared. The tip of the sword poked its tip outward as Bīto Takeshi tried to cut his way through the canvas.
Fumio clutched the bag’s handle and then flung the whole thing into the burning dumpster.
He heard a piercing scream as the flames engulfed the bag. Then there was nothing but a beautiful silence to accompany the roseate flames rising with fury into a suddenly bright and blue summer sky.
V. Good night sleep tight / Now the sun turns out his light
Still smelling of smoke and singed trash Fumio returned home. The fire, like the long-vibrating rays of an ultraviolent sun, still warmed his body. A strange tingle lingered in his brain and travelled from his neck and torso into his sweating palms and twitching fingers. Exhausted, he collapsed onto the floor and fell asleep once the machinations — the wheels-within-wheels, the spiral arrays — in his overtired brain downshifted and collapsed into themselves.
In his sleep the warm glow spoke to him in a glorious new lingua flamma that all could comprehend. And it was so beautiful it choked him with its thick smoke billowing forth from craters and bombed-out towers.
Something was squeezing his throat.
He could feel it poking the skin just below his Adam’s apple, poised to enter his trachea. He coughed and opened his eyes in panic.
Bīto Takeshi was standing on his chest pressing the tip of his miniature katana into his throat. His face had completely melted and hung down like ripples frozen on a sludge pond of pink flesh. Part of the cheek was burned off to reveal the teeth and jawbone below. The dark suit was seared into his flesh, all black and silver crusted onto skin and bone. The smell of burnt flesh permeated the apartment.
“So, trash man,” Bīto Takeshi said looking down over him, “you do excellent work.”
His hair, usually tamed slick against his head, as Fumio had seen on TV, was sticking up in a black shock, except for the area that had burned down to the skull. It made him look like a singed Franciscan monk.
Fumio blinked in confusion at the little man, unable to speak. His face seemed to have returned to normal. The jawbone and teeth disappeared behind a liquid flesh that recoiled instantly into place. The melted pink wax smoothed over into healthy-toned skin. The stench of burned flesh retreated to the folds of Fumio’s brain.
“You ready to burn something else?” Bīto Takeshi asked in a jovial tone as the final hairs on his head returned to position.
“Yes,” Fumio answered, suddenly happy to see the little bastard.
He didn’t really need to mull it over, either, for the only thing that Fumio could make sense of anymore was that scent of kerosene. He could feel the odor pulling at him with its elusive undertow. The nectar oozed from the all-consuming flower of fire now blooming in front of him and his new little companion in the black suit.
BIO: Ryu Ando lives and works as a librarian in Los Angeles, California. He lived much of his life in Saitama city, Japan, the setting for most of this fiction.