The oni blocked Mizumo’s path, looming larger than the strongest samurai, wearing a tiger-skin loin cloth. Muscles rippled under sky-blue skin. Three horns protruded from its forehead. Three-fingered hands covered its face. Elbows rested on knees wider than the length of the monk’s wakizashi blade.
Mizumo fingered the sword’s pommel beneath his robes. The oni seemed oddly unmenacing. It cried great, wracking sobs, muddying the footpath under three-toed feet.
Mizumo considered changing roads to the port city Sakai, but that would add days to his journey. Only two go of rice remained in the basket at his back. He’d intended reaching Sakai by nightfall.
Besides, the devil appeared distressed. Mizumo’s duty was to wander from town to town, offering aid and compassion to all. Even an devil might need a Buddhist monk’s ministrations.
Mizumo approached the monster, laid a comforting hand on its knee.
“May I be of help?”
The monster rolled fiery red eyes toward him. A flattened nose covered much of that hideous face. Scarred lips exposed sharp fangs in a mouth wide enough to swallow a horse.
Mizumo wished his weapon was a full length jin tachi.
The creature’s voice sounded hollow as the bamboo sticks used for bastinado. “Is your clan Tokamasi?”
“No. I am Mizumo.”
The oni resumed weeping.
Mizumo stepped back, scratching his shaven head. He might pass the self-absorbed devil safely, but curiosity restrained him.
“Perhaps if you talk about it…?”
The oni glared at the presumptuous holy man, yet its expression seemed uncharacteristically gentle. “You believe so?”
“Such has comforted me at the monastery.”
“My story is unfit for monasteries.”
“Nonetheless, there are patterns to human… to life.” Mizumo settled cross-legged on the road. “I am prepared to listen.”
“You started to say human behavior. I was human, once.”
“Perhaps,” Mizumo ventured, “that memory torments you.”
The devil pondered this. Oni are notoriously slow of wit, and this one’s human incarnation had been little better. Finally: “I start at the beginning.”
The devil scowled. Like all stupid, malicious creatures, it thought compliments often veiled insults. Yet Mizuno’s manner seemed sincere. Later, should the oni find otherwise, it could kill him.
“I was a peasant farmer. My father died shortly after my marriage, leaving me the land on which we worked. My only family was my beautiful wife, Sei. The fruit of our union had yet to ripen, although her belly began swelling.
“Unfortunately, the shoen we lived in was ruled by a merciless jito, Tokamasi Ito. He coveted Sei, made indecent suggestions. She refused him, naturally. One day, while I performed an errand, Tokamasi’s men abducted my fair blossom. Enraged, I rushed to his palace, pounded the gates, demanded her return. He laughed, sent samurai to beat me. I could barely crawl home.
“In our shoen, the jito’s word was law, so I traveled to Kyoto, to register a complaint at the Rokuhara-Tandai for justice.”
Mizumo nodded. “I gather you were not satisfied.”
The oni snorted as only a devil can. “I could not afford bribes to ensure my petition was heard. Days later, I discovered all cases were transferred to Kamakura for final judgement. I journeyed there, to present my case directly to the highest court; again, failing to gain a hearing. One official advised, even if my dispute came up, it was my word against the jito’s.”
“Where secular justice fails,” Mizumo advised, “there is divine judgement. Our monastery hosts plaintiffs and defendants in disputes, sometimes for days, awaiting signs to reveal the guilty party.”
The oni grunted. “I could not stay in Kamakura. Harvest was near. Without Sei’s help, I would have to work twice as hard. But Ito confiscated my fields, claiming I abandoned them. Even my neighbors condemned my absence. I became eta, an outcast, fit only to clean cesspools and dig graves. Again, I raged at Tokamasi’s gates! Again, I was beaten! I died under his warrior’s blows, cursing Tokamasi’s name, obsessed with vengeance.”
Mizumo nodded. “No wonder you were reborn a devil. Our next incarnation is determined as much by thoughts as deeds.”
The devil smirked. “Nothing could have suited me better. We oni are long-lived, human generations but the blink of an eye. I could achieve revenge not only on Tokamasi Ito, but his children, his children’s children, all his line!
“From Ito, I learned my wife died soon after myself; in childbirth, he claimed. Liar. I roasted his youngest son, forced Ito to eat the child, took pleasure prolonging his agony. He died too soon, less than a day.
“Still, Ito had many relatives. The years had been good to me.
“This morning I met the last Tokamasi, a woman not yet your age. She threatened me with a sword!”
The oni imitated her voice. “‘I know you, devil! You slew my family. Kill me, too, if you can!’
“I plucked the sword from her hand like plucking rice at harvest. ‘No,’ I countered. ‘I leave you to wed and raise fat babies… for me to visit.’
“She pulled her hair, beat her chest, sank to her knees. Very amusing. ‘Monster!’ she cried. ‘No more victims! I shall remain unwed and celibate until I die!’
“Ungrateful! I’d offered her life, asking only that she continue her lineage. Could I be more reasonable?”
“She sounds brave,” Mizumo whispered. Sweat on his back turned ice-cold.
“She showed you the emptiness of life built on hatred.”
“Not at all! I squashed her like a bug.” The devil raised a tall iron rod, spikes glistening from still damp blood. Bits of skin, bone, and hair clung to it.
“Your tears! Your sorrow! Are they not signs of remorse?”
The oni snarled. “Ignorant monk. I cry because I face centuries without a single Tokamasi to kill. What shall I do?”
The oni again wept bitterly.
Since nothing he said could comfort the devil, Mizumo skirted the muddy road, hastening toward Sakai.
He arrived well before nightfall.