The Pariah Supervisor

by John Givens

He blindfolded the arsonist then led him outside.

The Edo city constable and his men were arrayed along one edge of the execution grounds, hunched like jackdaws in their thick winter robes.

I will show you a rare occurrence.

Your demonstration is unnecessary, said the constable. All acknowledge your skills. What we cannot tolerate is your stench.

The cold had no effect on the pariah supervisor, and he was wearing only a cuirass of pink and purple leather scales studded with steel buttons, the excess of it curving out over the massive expanse of his badger-belly in a manner that was loathsome in the eyes of the constabulary men, as was the heavily-oiled mass of his chignon.

I said we don't need to see this. We know what you can do.

You don't know what I can do.

The arsonist waited, shivering in terror, his bound head tilted off to one side like someone listening for faint sounds coming from afar. He had burned down the house of a moneylender to whom he was indebted. Both the man and his account books had survived although the building and its neighbors were lost to the conflagration, and in the Shogun's city, there was only one punishment for such a crime.

The arsonist said he wasn't ready. He needed a moment to compose himself. But his robe was being stripped down off his shoulders like the prelude for the bedding of a new bride, his arms lifted out of their sleeves, first one then the other, and his sash too pushed down until the wad of garments hung low on his hips much in the style of happy-day dancers responding to excessive heat and wine and the cries of their fellows.

Do not move.

But I'm unprepared. . . . Jirobei had brought a stiff-blade chopper, heavier than most, one with an oversized hilt further thickened by a layer of horsehide held in place by windings of copper wire, the coils of which crisscrossed over each other, forming diamond-shaped lozenges that in addition to the practical utility of ensuring an improved gripping surface, provided an aesthetic component as well. He drove off his back leg. He rotated his hips as he hit through, swinging across low and hard and flat and with both arms fully extended at the point of impact so that the arsonist flipped apart in a snarl of entrails leaping out like flung eels.

The supervisor stood between the two halves of the dying body, the spray of fresh offal steaming on the frozen soil. That is a thing it is said cannot be done to a standing man. But as you have seen, I can do it.

The city constable stared at the sundered corpse, his face pinched shut with disgust. What do you want?

The arsonist's loincloth had come apart with his destruction, and the supervisor plucked up one end of it then wiped clean his blade. To be included among those who enforce the laws of the shogunate.

To be included? The city constable looked at his junior officers; but it was their own fear of this nonperson that had precipitated the difficulty, their sense that he was incarnate excessively, impinging upon them, and that their inability to confront him was external to themselves and beyond the reach of the techniques of the constabulary. It's impossible.

The supervisor stood waiting, the blood flow reaching his rice straw sandals.

Don't ask for what can never be given.

The supervisor remained as he was.

Never! cried the city constable, his voice cracking like a frozen twig snapped on a dry day. Never. You have no family, no registry, nothing to certify you. He glanced at his men again, but there would be no help from any of them. You're not a person. You have no name.

I am called the supervisor of the shunned. As you know.

Called by whom?

All who encounter me.

And you think that's enough?

It's what I'm called.

The city constable glared at those who were aligned with him, warriors gone soft on the generosity of the shogunate, cushion-choosers, rice-eaters, brazier-lovers too concerned with their own comfort and well-being. Do not ask to be included, he said. Ask for something else.

There is nothing else. The supervisor waited then said, I need permission to go inside buildings. I need permission to ask questions and require answers. The city is growing, malefactors arriving. He studied the constabulary officers, the clutch of them looking back at him like penned capons. I need permission to hurt others. Hurt artisans and tradesmen and teachers. Hurt samurai.

Not samurai.

The supervisor waited.

There is no person in this world who would approve that. Never.

I cannot serve you if I am not allowed inside your buildings. He smiled to himself then said, Typical urban habitations, savoring the sound of each word as he pronounced it, the feel of it on his lips.

Your service is not required.

The supervisor stared back at the constabulary men arrayed before him. You haven't understood that urban poverty requires harsh methods.

Why do you care about the poor?

I don't care about them. I care about orderliness.

There's no reason for you to pursue such matters. Stick to your tallow vats!

There is no reason for anything, the huge man said mildly. Other than in the doing of it.


One branch hung over his back fence, the shell-pink clouds of cherry blossoms glowing in the misty predawn light with a delicate and preemptive beauty. He gazed at the unmoving mass of flowers fully opened at last then closed his eyes to feel the image more intensely; and as he did so, a temple bell sounded in the distance, the long slow reverence of it like the voice of the earth, its reverberations reaching the supervisor of the pariahs as it did all the other citizens of the city of Edo.

He had never needed much sleep; now he needed even less. He had adopted the habit of strolling into the metropolis at odd times during the night and day, wearing a thin cotton robe that was printed all over with indigo hibiscus flowers bearing cinnabar stamens, a bold design that he considered flattering to his physique. He felt the sap of the world rising up through him. It left him agitated, unsettled, stimulated, at one with the new green of leaves unfurling on the city's hardwoods and the dewy freshness of fern shoots sprouting in the moorlands. He had been slashed in the face during an altercation with a gang of easy-way boys, and the wounds had healed although the striae of horizontal scars on his face remained dead white despite his ruddy complexion, and the rictus still crimping his upper lip meant that effort was required for him to form words properly. He accepted what had been done to him in the same way as he accepted what he had done to those who resisted him.

But the season of cherry blossoms filled him with a new restlessness. He bathed daily now, usually just at the blades of dawn, and he cleaned his teeth, scraped the dirt and dried blood out from under his fingernails, and wiped himself carefully each time after shitting. Everywhere were instances of regeneration to be embraced and extended; and the huge creature welcomed it all, sitting naked and alone in the rising sun and managing his long black hair, combing it out with a hand-cut boxwood comb then dressing it with camellia oil - much too heavily, he knew, but the pleasure of the scent of it was difficult to resist, as was his pleasure at adding an extravagant binding cord to hold his grossly oiled topknot in place - cherry pink, in honor of the season.

Permission to enter human residencies had not been granted. But the roads and lanes and alleyways of the shogun's city were available to the pariah supervisor, and he would linger in the orange twilight outside the open widows of the home of the arsonist he had punished and watch his widow eat and feed his children, occupy herself with petty crafts and household chores. Was she aware of him? He had to believe that she was. And he therefore returned day and night and smiled benignly from the road as she chatted with visitors or dozed alone. He watched as she drank wine and smoked tobacco with men from the neighborhood, men who had been her husband's friends, and he smiled benignly as she laughed and sang with them, prayed with them, wept, squabbled and fucked with them so that the supervisor felt almost included, almost numbered among those who called on the widow and distracted her from her cares.


No rain fell.

Dung from dogs and dray beasts dried in the sun, became pulverized by the hooves and wheels of commercial traffic, and rose in great choking clouds of fecal dust that swirled throughout the shogun's city in a foul miasma. Those who were obliged to venture outdoors did so reluctantly, scuttling under the low yellow sky with dampened scarfs wound around their faces and leaving only the narrowest of openings for their red-rimmed eyes. It was the awful season, the time of drought and contagion; and at the height of the worst of it, the supervisor the pariahs departed from Edo alone, the carry-sack slung over his shoulder containing the cutters and choppers and other tools he required. He had packed spare loin cloths, sashes, and a cotton robe. He also had a hemp jacket suitable for cool weather and a baggy pair of matching hemp trousers, both of which he doubted he would ever wear. He had an ear spoon and a cosmetic tweezers and a face razor. He had an extra-large flask of hair oil, the excessive potency of which he alone seemed not to find cloying. His pariah scavengers had watched him don his cuirass for departure and said not a word. The supervisor chose an oak cudgel with iron ferrules on each end that were the size and shape of a human eye socket, and the sound this staff made on the dry ground as he walked reassured him with the certainty of his passage. Extra sandals dangled from his obi sash, as did a water gourd and a sash-pouch containing various items: a little claw-hook for working in tight spaces, a focusing lens in a protective flat-sack, a shard of obsidian glass sharper than any knife, and a flint and steel for cloudy-day fires. During the tedious days of the summer rains, the supervisor had refined his understanding of the nature of the pleasure of possession, and he now also carried with him a few pretty seashells, a string of amber beads, and a few exotic coins; he had a set of brass buttons that had been cut off the naval jacket of a butter-eater by the mob that had smothered him; he had a pair of lead bullets that he had dug out of his own flesh himself and retained in commemoration of the accomplishment; he had a double-handful of keepsake teeth and a few ornamental knots of dried skin; and wrapped in a cup of mulberry paper was the petrified skull of a shrew-mole, an ancient artifact that was decorated all over with archaic and mysterious writing for which he hoped one day to find a reader.

The under-constable at New Station sat on his horse and watched the approach of the huge, dust-covered creature wearing body armor gaudy as fresh entrails. He hated seeing him. He hated the way his massive red arms and shoulders and buttocks and thighs were exposed, hated the nakedness of his flat red face. The under-constable's disgust and fear settled itself most intensely upon the huge, shambling creature's flamboyant hairstyle, the great folded excrescence of night-berry blackness that was grossly oiled and configured into an exaggerated display never before seen, the excess of it certainly an affront.

You are not permitted to stay here. The under-constable carried a stabbing spear which he held at a defensive angle. Not to eat or to rest.

The pariah supervisor halted in front of him. Insects filled the slanting orange afternoon light, and in the distance could be heard the steady rasp of a soy-bean grinder. Here? He surveyed the shabby collection of shops and sheds that lined the road on both sides, the cheap inns and noodle stalls and dray stables all of recent construction.

You can continue on through New Station and out onto the walking road. But you are forbidden to stop at our facilities. And certainly not to sleep overnight.

I seldom sleep much, the supervisor said. He pronounced his words slowly and with great care in order to compensate for the scarring that deformed his upper lip. But I always sleep well.

New Station was the starting point for journeys on the Central Mountain Road, and unemployed carters and draymen and palanquin bearers sprawled at their ease on the roadside benches of wine shops or squatted near the blacksmith's forge and watched him at his labors, as if the fact of work occurring was in itself of interest to them.

You have made a mistake, the supervisor said. For I don't wish to stay here. He stood in the dust of the road with his carry-sack slung over one shoulder, each of the hacking tools it contained wrapped within individual hemp-cloth pouches to muffle the rattle of metal against metal; and he lifted his thick red forearms and rested them across the iron top-knob of his cudgel, placing first one there then the other, like a butcher balancing the skinned carcasses of slaughtered dogs. I respect the law, the supervisor said. And I acknowledge the requirements of those who administer it. For I number myself among them.

There had been a carp pond at New Station once, stocked with fry in the expectation of an effortless profit. But the pond had become choked with water-weeds, the young fish died, and their bodies had rotted on the pond banks, leaving only a lush clotting of reeds, home now to frogs and the snakes that hunted them. The dried reeds could have been collected and woven into the surface sheets used for tatami mats. But the disappointed fish-farmers didn't harvest them; and the reeds grew to the edge of the roadway and collapsed under the accumulation of their own weight so that the under-constable's horse danced nervously on a crackling carpet of dry stalks.

The supervisor circumambulated the dead pond. He paused for a moment like a man listening for the wind in the reeds then crossed over to the blacksmith's furnace. Those squatting there stood deferentially then moved to one side, timid as sheep, each man seeking to tuck in behind another.

The supervisor put his hand into the tossing flames at the forge mouth. He held it there and held it there then removed it.

The blacksmith backed away as if he himself had been burned, and the carters and draymen adopted the worried solemnity of men who might have to defend suppositions they no longer trusted.

They say you can live three ways, said the supervisor. He held up his swollen red hand and studied it, as if the linkage between what he did and what he experienced as being done required confirmation. You can be told of a thing like a flame. And recognize what the words mean and how they fit together, and so use that understanding as a guide. Such a man is called the learner of easy lessons. He knows how to describe a flame but nothing more. Perhaps you are like him.

But there is also the man who chooses to stand close to a flame and observe it with his own eyes, study its color, its dance, the heat it provides, the shapeless shape of it in its wavering, and through such an effort come to know the meaning of flames. That is the way of the satisfied seeker. Such a man can use flames but will never himself become part of any fire. You have perhaps encountered such a man. I believe I have.

But the third way is that of the man who is willing to reach out and be burned by a flame. You have seen me do it. Yet even a man who can accept this third way is still no closer to understanding the true nature of the soul of a flame. This is the way of the man who always arrives. Am I him? Who can tell me?

Arrives? Arrives? The under-constable's voice cracked like a duck pelted by gravel. You aren't even permitted to be here! he cried; and his horse began dancing sideways, kicking out nervously at the loose reeds dressing the roadway.

The supervisor observed the New Station under-constable. You're poor at this.

The under-constable jerked his horse around and brought it under control again, as if doing that much might return him to where he wished to be.

Because you're afraid, the supervisor said. But don't you understand that if I'd wished to harm you, it would have happened already?

The under-constable sat on his horse with his spear in his hand and did not respond or move in any way.

Your death owns you. As mine owns me. Only by accepting this can you live in the world.

The under-constable waited, his jaw working like that of a man chewing gristle.

Go home, the pariah supervisor said. If you have a child, cuddle it. If you have a wife, compliment her. If your aged parents are still with you, ask them about their lives and listen to what they say. Own what you have. And be satisfied with it.

He stood for a moment longer then turned away and continued on through the hamlet and out onto the mountain road.

John Givens got his MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He studied art in Kyoto for four years and worked as a writer and editor in Tokyo for eight. He has published three novels: Sons of the Pioneers (HBJ), A Friend in the Police (HBJ), and Living Alone (Atheneum), as well as short stories in various journals. His non-fiction publications include Dublin Bay: Mirror to the City, and Irish Walled Towns (both by The Liffey Press). "The Pariah Supervisor" is part of novel set in 17th century Japan, currently titled The Plantain Manner. Givens lives on the wet and windy slopes of Howth, County Dublin.