Shirikodama (Or The Finer Points of Politics)

 

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(Dedicated, sincerely, to the turtle-man himself, Mitch McConnell.)

It was in the midst of Japan’s Edo period that the musician Mochimitsu traveled to the Shiga Highlands, looking to hone his skills as a flutist while also seeking patronage generous enough to sustain him for a time. Mochimitsu was a young man then, and had not grown to be the legendary artist that later years would prove him to be. But he was hale and hearty and he stopped by a small village on Lake Onuma to seek rest and food. Onuma Lake was a beautiful expanse of water. The village beside it was a modest huddle of mud huts with straw thatch roofs, and its people were fishing families known to be industrious and peaceful. They had not much to offer for Mochimitsu’s songs except fish and rice, which he gladly received with gratitude. At night he played his songs for them beneath the stars, and the piping of his hichiriki— or double reed flute— pleased all ears, echoing from the birch trees and maples to the slumbering summit of Oshima Komaga-take.
Fortune was not well, however, in the Shiga Highlands. Heavy rains soon fell, preventing Mochimitsu from continuing his journey. He stayed with a different fishing family each night, their generosity granting him a good meal and a corner in their dry huts. Soon, however, the heavy rains rioted upon the land. Ponds and lakes brimmed and spilled. Lake Onuma flooded terribly with excess and a strange, bubbling madness. The village priestess claimed it was the work of demons that lived on the islands in the center of Lake Onuma. The floodwaters rose up around the village, melting the mud walls and washing away the straw roofs. The villagers swam to their boats, or clung to makeshift rafts that they assembled in the panicked hours as the waters destroyed their homes. Some villagers did not survive. Many among the elderly perished, their bodies floating on the Lake’s distending surface. Mochimitsu was fortunate. When the waters rushed in among the huts, he had been out of the hut, relieving himself. Realizing the danger, he secured a boat of his very own right before the frenzied heft of the floodwaters rolled against village, smashing the remaining huts and killing many. Mochimitsu floated on the boat for hours that night, looking for survivors as an unnatural mist rose around the lake. It was so thick that a perpetual twilight subsumed the Shiga Highlands.
Mochimitsu sought land, but found none forthcoming. He had no skills as a boatman. He was confused by the fetid mist, and lost his heading as he paddled with his bare hands. Circles upon circles he scrawled upon the forgetful waters, chasing his own waves. As a consequence, he saved no one. When he finally found land, he frantically paddled toward it. Yet, he found himself tricked. It was not the mainland, but instead a series of islands in the middle of Lake Onuma. There were figures upon those islands, and so he drifted toward them.
The priestess had been correct. Demons had conjured the rains and bid the lake to swell. They were nasty turtle men— known as Kappas—and they hungered for the souls of humans. Mochimitsu saw their silhouettes in the mist from afar. They gurgled and giggled with gluttonous delight, dragging the bodies of men, women, and children onto their islands and feasting upon their shirikodamas; the fabled life energy in a human’s anus. They ate of them with their long tongues, the terrible sight nauseating Mochimitsu as he watched the turtle-men feed on filth and shame and death. They had no morals. They were vicious, heartless creatures that relished in their corruption.
Seeing their atrocities, Mochimitsu gave an involuntary gasp of terror. He clamped his hands to his mouth, but it was too late. The Kappas turned their attention to him, all as one, abandoning the drowned, bloated corpses of their previous victims to seek fresher spoils. They dove into the water and swam faster beneath the burden of their foul shells than Mochimitsu ever could hope to swim in his naked skin. Helpless in his boat, Mochimitsu took up his reed flute one last time, puckered his lips upon it and began to play what he assumed would be his final song. He played with the full strength of his lungs and his heart, harnessing a melody that would have made tengu weep. It was to be his magnum opus; his perfect cherry blossom blooming in the ears of gods and demons alike.
The Kappas halted as they heard his song, floating around the boat with their beak-faced heads half-submerged while their red eyes watched him through the mist. Their green, pointy ears perked up, calmly swaying with the notes of his song. Mochimitsu did not look at them. He closed his eyes against the black hairs around the concave tonsure of their skulls; their long, unspooling tongues with their barbed tips. Mochimitsu played for what must have been an hour, his thoughts focused in the pure, radiant form of his song. It kept the depraved demons at bay. They could not move, mesmerized by his skill. The rains stopped falling altogether. The waves unwound and the sun burned the remaining mist away. Still, the Kappas remained transfixed, listening to Mochimitsu’s prowess.
At length, a boat of fisherman came by. They approached surreptitiously, armed with long-handled spears. They were hungry for vengeance, seeking the creatures that had defiled and destroyed their loved ones. While Mochimitsu kept the Kappas enthralled, the fishermen impaled the misbegotten demons through their skulls, spilling the waters they kept in their heads. They then chopped them up and fetched their violated dead from the accursed islands. Mochimitsu was hailed as a hero that day. Henceforth, his legend grew as he ventured from village to village. He now found employment by ensorcelling the loathsome turtle-men so that warriors might more easily dispatch them. He gained a good reputation and saved many lives.

Many years later Mochimitsu became the flutist at the Emperor’s palace. He did well in court, as both a musician and as a man of integrity, and was deft at not only the flute, but at imperial politics as well. The Emperor respected Mochimitsu’s opinion, for he was often wise in his thoughts, but also slow to reveal them, whereas others were overeager to spread their hasty opinions. Many nobles resented Mochimitsu, for he was a lowborn flutist, whereas they were born of esteemed blood. They plotted against him. They often attempted to pit him against the Emperor with rumors and gossip. They planted poisonous seeds all around him.
But it was to no avail.
One day a nobleman asked Mochimitsu how he came to be so skilled at handling petty nobles. How, the nobleman asked, could he survive when so many sought to undermine him for the sake of endearing themselves to the Emperor? Mochimitsu held his flute in one hand, contemplating his flute, and this question, for a long time. The flute was both straight and narrow. His answer to the question, thus, needed to be both straight and narrow to be true.
“I have spent many years besting such creatures with my own song,” the old man said. “I know how to handle such creatures. I know how to defend myself against turtle-men who spend all of their time with their tongues up other people’s asses.”

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