The Fire Sermon by Joel Tagert

Art by Gonzalo

Published Issue 126, June 2024

Suddenly aware of bells ringing in the night, Itsuro sat up, staring toward the sound. As he listened another bell joined in, and another — bells from many temples being struck ceaselessly. Minoru, unbelievably, was still snoring. Itsuro jumped up and started flinging on his clothes. “Wake up, baka!

Minoru did, with a start, looking confused. Understandable enough, at his age, but a samurai needed to wake quickly. “What?”

“It’s a fire!” 

In minutes the whole household was up, going out to the street to stare anxiously to the northwest, where an orange light licked the ankles of a tall column of roiling smoke. “Maybe Asakusa,” Itsuro said, he and Minoru having climbed the courtyard wall for a better view.

“Or Yoshiwara,” Minoru said, causing Itsuro to give him a shove. “Hey!” the teenager cried, trying to regain his balance and failing, but ending more or less on his feet on the ground. “What was that for?”

“Your impure thoughts.”

But of course it was Itsuro’s thoughts that were impure, drawn irresistibly to recollections of a young woman’s smooth pale thighs, her breasts, her lips, her sex, like moths to a flame. The world is on fire, the Buddha said. Itsuro had first heard the phrase from the fire-and-brimstone preachings of an old priest in the village of Kawanori Mura, but he’d heard it again when he’d mentioned to Ayaka how the priest’s description of hell had terrified him as a boy. Looking out at the maples in the courtyard of the geisha house, hearing their rattle in the wind, Ayaka had replied with a poem:

The world is on fire

Each vermilion leaf a life

Crackling in the flames

“Itsuro,” Lord Watanabe called, returning from the street and spying the young man. He jerked his head and Itsuro leapt off the wall to follow him toward the stables. Once they were inside Watanabe said, “I need you to do something for me.” 

“Ayaka?” Itsuro ventured, trying to keep his tone level, not giving a hint of his own feelings toward his lord’s favorite courtesan, or his repulsion that this old man should touch someone so young and beautiful. A lecher, is what he was. Mind like a bottom-feeding fish and face greasy as a frying pan. 

“Find her and make sure she’s safe. Take her to… I don’t know, find an inn outside the city and have her stay there until she can return. Here’s a few ryo.”

“It might be crowded, my lord, with people fleeing the fire. It may cost more than usual.”

Watanabe’s eyes narrowed, then he exhaled in irritation. “Fine. Here. But I want her in a decent place. If I put her in some dump I’ll never stop hearing about it. Now go.” 


 Itsuro considered whether it was the best idea to take his horse, a spirited silver stallion named Kaze, into an area sure to be full of smoke and possibly fire, but he would be too slow on foot, and assuming he did find Ayaka, he could hardly carry her on his back. Well, maybe for a little while.

He left with the household frantically preparing its firefighting efforts, carrying bucket after bucket of water from the canal. The breeze smelled strongly of smoke. The streets were full of activity, everyone running back and forth, yelling instructions over the ringing bells, wetting down building exteriors, racing to pack their belongings in the event the fire did cross the river. The Sumida was wide, but it had happened before, and happened quickly. The orange glow on the horizon lent a gut-felt urgency to their efforts.

The crowds also made it hard to ride on the street, and horse and rider constantly had to veer around obstacles. Itsuro kept up a steady cry of “Make way!” but few paid heed. He went north through Ryogoku and then turned west toward the river. Though it was night, and the fire just started, every ferryman in the city seemed to already be at their vessels, some to make an easy buck, some just to help the thousands trying to cross. He continued along the riverbank with some difficulty, the path of packed earth jammed with residents. Most were headed east or south. “Where’s the fire?” he called out to some commoners. 

“Asakusa, but it’s spreading fast! This wind is a demon!” 

He crossed near Senso-ji, where there were usually many ferries, but still had to wait a damnable fifteen minutes, cursing internally even as he tried to calm his skittish steed. It seemed the whole eastern horizon was a wall of roiling smoke — and the wind was northward. Fires like this could spread immensely fast. He used one of the ryo to get the attention of a ferryman with a sturdy boat for horses — an exorbitant cost — and soon was riding on the wide road behind the temple complex. There was a hospital adjacent the temple, and as he passed he glanced inside a cart pulled by a furiously sweating cartman to see a young woman holding up two scorched hands like claws and crying out and writhing in her agony. Then he saw another cart — and another — all seeking what little succor the monks and nuns could provide. 

This also meant the fire must be close, as if the smothering smoke were not indication enough, but he still thought he could reach the courtesan house before the flames. Surely the geisha had already evacuated? No matter; it was his duty to check, and his desire — imagine how grateful Ayaka would be! The things she might do in her gratitude …

At last he saw the fire itself — a battle line of raging flames, brightest toward Taito, but extending north and south so far as he could see. Crashes resounded across the landscape as teams of men and horses used ropes and grappling hooks to pull down buildings a few blocks away, desperately trying to create a fire break, dangerous work given the fire’s proximity. 

North again, paralleling the fire; and entering Yoshiwara, he breathed a sigh of relief seeing it still standing. But for how long? The air was thick with ash, and he saw sparks flying above him. He thought it wouldn’t be long before the district erupted into an inferno, and clearly the residents had the same notion, for he saw only a few bowed figures running through the darkness, possessions strapped to their backs. It was already hot as a furnace, and to the south was an inferno, lighting the curved roofs and waving branches with a red premonition of what was to come.

Art by Gonzalo

Wrapping a scarf about his face (which did no good — he was coughing furiously), he reached Madame Haru’s place, the House of Bending Willows, and found the gate closed. He called out but no one answered. There’s no one here, idiot. Get out while you can. But he had to make certain, didn’t he? Perhaps he could even bring Watanabe some item to prove his diligence — or just to boast to Minoru of his exploits. Tying Kaze to the wooden gate handle, he scaled the wall and jumped down inside. 

He rapped on the sliding door at the main entry, calling out, but of course no one answered. The doors slid open without hindrance and two strides and a jump took him through the vestibule and into the main parlor. He knew the way to Ayaka’s room by memory, having been here four times before, up the stairs and down the hall. He knocked again: no answer. He opened the door.

“Ayaka?” he said, stupefied, because to his complete surprise there was a woman kneeling there, looking out the open window to the street, and firelight limned her face. Then she turned and he recoiled. 

Not Ayaka. Not Ayaka at all, but someone else, something else. An old woman, face deeply seamed, but with long gray hair that somehow floated upward, twisting and writhing in the wind from the window, a crown of churning smoke in ceaseless movement; and her eyes were pits of flame. He stepped back to flee, but the old woman called out: “Stay, young samurai! I can help you!” Her voice hissed and crackled like sputtering logs, and orange light shone within her mouth when she spoke. 

“What are you?”

“I’m the one who can give you what you desire.”

“You’re a demon.”

“That’s just a word people use for things they don’t understand. I have thoughts and desires, just like you. And I know you came here looking for something. Name it.”

“I’m looking for Ayaka.”

“Yes, of course. I can make her yours, if you wish. If you just do a small something for me.”

“What is it?”

“In Madame Haru’s perfume collection there is a silver bottle with an iron stopper. Bring it to me.” 

“That’s it?” 

“I need your help opening it. Then I will fulfill your desire. But hurry — the fire is close.”

He considered just running away, but the spirit seemed confident she knew where Ayaka was — and more. Something about the way she said I can make her yours seized his attention … seized it like the gentle fingers of a beautiful woman. “Fine. Stay here.”

Madame Haru’s room was just at the end of the hall. The house mother had at least a dozen bottles of perfume on a small table, but only one had an iron stopper. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands: nearly globular, like an orange, or a grenade. The scenes on it were hard to see in the flickering light, but seemed to depict dancing figures in a bamboo grove. 

He returned to Ayaka’s room and found the old woman waiting, leaning forward eagerly, spidery fingers tented on her thighs. “Here it is,” he said, though disturbed by the fiery intensity of her stare. “Now tell me where Ayaka is.”

“So the girl is what you want?”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“And I said I could make her yours. But consider: Open the bottle, and I will grant whatever you wish. If you still want women, I can give you any woman you desire. If you want money, I can make you as wealthy as the emperor. I can make you a lord of lords, or an unstoppable warrior. I can make you a sage. I can even make you a Buddha.”

“A Buddha?” he repeated, frowning. A Buddha? He thought he had known why he was here, but now he was thrown into uncertainty. After all, what greater prize could there be than Buddhahood? If he were a Buddha, all the other problems he faced, all his confusion, would dissipate like sand thrown into the ocean. Kings would bow before him, sages would speak of his wisdom, and his name would be remembered for a thousand years. What could compare to it? Was it not the ultimate glory?

Then he remembered his purpose. “What about Ayaka?”

“You’ll never see her again.”

“You mean she’ll be dead?”

“I mean her fate will be out of your hands.”

He chewed on this, sweating in the heat. It wasn’t like he would be killing her. Wasn’t her karma her own? And she obviously wasn’t in the geisha house anyway. She was probably sipping tea with an auntie somewhere. “Fine,” he said. “Make me a Buddha.”

“Open the bottle,” the demon hissed. 

He pulled on the stopper. It had obviously been put there a long time ago and he had to pull hard, but finally it popped free. He inhaled sharply as it did, and his head swam with a sudden heady scent, a cloud of red fumes billowing from the bottle. In that moment, suddenly, he understood, understood completely, and knew he had made a mistake. 

“I want— ” he began to say, but a spark blew in through the window. The fumes ignited. 

It took him a moment to even register what had happened, as his vision turned white, then black. Then agony gripped him, his face literally on fire, but most of all his eyes, and he screamed and fell, pressing his hands to the melted flesh of his ruined sockets.

He might well have died there, but in a half-mad fever dream he got to his feet and stumbled down the stairs and out the gate, bouncing off the walls, until he found his horse tied where he’d left him. Somehow he managed to pull himself into the saddle, and together they escaped the flames.

Blind, his life as a samurai was over. He was sent to Kamakura for his healing and in Kamakura he remained, shaving his head and becoming a monk. He spoke rarely, glad he at least could not see his own disfigurement. Eventually that too passed, until he could imagine no other way his life could have gone. When old age finally claimed his life, the other monks murmured among themselves, “He was a living Buddha.” 

Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist and the author of A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast and INFERENCE. He is also currently the resident manager and chef for Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center near Ward, CO.

In case you missed it check out Joel’s May Birdy install, Threshold of the Wild Hunt, or head to our Explore section to see more of their past work.