Buyer’s remorse from wish to wish,
quite the fickle-fingered fetish.
Buyer’s remorse from wish to wish,
Buyer’s remorse from wish to wish,
quite the fickle-fingered fetish.
Little Boy Blew
“Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.
Where is that boy who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack, fast asleep.
Will you wake him? Oh no, not I,
For if I do, he’ll surely cry.”
The sunrise was apocalyptic, setting the meadow aflame with blinding white light scintillating across early morning dew. Tom stood in the light, stunned, leaning on his pitchfork. A big man—and not at all Slim Pickings—he was as a scarecrow made of brick; more stone than stonemason. Even so, he stared at the sunrise with a look akin to haunted sorrow. When the flames of the morning did not reach past the distant trees, however, he loosened his taut muscles and continued pitching the hay into the nearby wagon. The pale horse in front of the wagon whinnied impatiently.
“I am hurrying as fast I can,” Tom said to the horse, grunting as he stooped and pitched the hay.
The cool morning mists scattered at the sun, like ghosts. The air grew hotter. The dew of the morning vanished while the dew on Tom’s brow gathered wetly. He did not wipe it away until he had piled the wagon high and could fit no more within its bed. Then he wiped his brow with his flannel sleeve and took hold of the horse’s reins.
“Go on, Old Henry,” Tom said, giving the reins a little whip.
Old Henry was, in fact, not “Old”, but young, and so impatient for work. He pulled at once, and nearly accelerated to a trot, but Tom gave the reins a little tug to curtail the horse’s impatience. The horse knew where to go, and so went to the barn directly, navigating the grazing cattle with little guidance or prompting. He came to a stop by the gabled barn, snorting contemptibly. Tom hopped off the wagon. Old Henry gave another impatient snort for emphasis.
“Fine, fine,” Tom said, untying the horse from the wagon. “Go on, then.”
The horse bolted, running across the vast meadow. At full-gallop it approached the fenceline—as if it would bound over it—but turned at the last moment and ran the length of the perimeter as if keen on winning the Kentucky Derby. While Old Henry ran his laps, Tom unloaded the wagon. By the time he had finished, his wife called him to breakfast. He rested the pitchfork against the wagon and turned toward the old farmhouse. As he turned he caught sight of something standing in the meadow, where the cows grazed. In his periphery it looked tall and wide of stance. He turned to look at it directly, but whatever it was, it was gone.
The kitchen was bright as the sun glared through the window. The tiles across the floor gleamed, recently mopped, and the chicken wallpaper was paneled with few shadows from the cabinets.
“Why don’t you get a tractor, pa?” his son asked. The little boy sat across from his father at the round table, looking expectantly at his father.
“I can make do without one,” Tom said. He grimaced as a gashing pain shot across the bend of his back, near the juncture of his shoulderblades and the tendons of the spine. He buried the awareness of this pain deep in the crowded bunker of his mind.
His wife, Lucille, sighed, but said nothing. She served them plates heaped with eggs, bacon, and pancakes. His son ate the pancakes with energy—more energy than he ever had for his chores—and Tom watched him pensively for a long moment. Tom then began to eat. He ate the pancakes and the eggs with an engineer’s exacting efficiency, but he did not touch the bacon. The bacon made him feel sick to his stomach.
“Lucy,” he said, “I thought I told you not to give me any bacon.”
His wife sat down at the table with her own plate.
“It’s good for you, Tom,” she said. “You need something to keep your strength up. You’ll work yourself to an early grave if you don’t eat more.”
Tom, who was broad of shoulders and barrel-chested, shook his head.
“I drink plenty of milk,” he said. “That is enough. Here, Little Tom, have at it.”
He slid the plate across the table to his son. Little Tom reached his small hand out and took hold of the bacon, piling it onto his plate with greasy fingers.
“Thanks, pa,” Little Tom said.
Tom stood up, silently, and went to the door.
“Tom,” Lucille said, turning in her chair to watch him go.
He paused at the door that led out of the kitchen.
“Don’t work yourself out there too much,” she said. “The heat’s not good for you.”
“I know heat’s not good for you,” Tom said. “Believe me. I know better than most.”
He went out the door.
Tom went to the garden to hoe the weeds. Occasionally he stole a glance at the cows, and Old Henry, and the farmhouse. Little Tom joined him, using a small hoe to stab at the black soil and uproot the weeds. Little Tom wore his own denim overalls and a blue shirt. On his head he wore a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap.
They were a long way from Brooklyn, but not far enough from Manhattan.
“When do you go back to school?” Tom asked his son.
The little boy looked gloomy in the shade of his hat. The midmorning sunshine chiseled the shadow hard along his round face. “Another month, I think?”
“You been keeping up your studies?” Tom asked him.
The little boy gave a glum, half-hearted shrug. He dug at the soil aimlessly; absentmindedly. He said nothing.
“We got those books for you so you could study,” Tom said. “You’re goin’ to need to study to get better in school so you can go to college someday.”
The boy sulked in silence for a while. He uprooted a weed and threw it out of the garden.
“Why can’t I join the Army?” he said, mousily. “Like you did?”
Tom’s face darkened. “I’ve told you already,” he said, his tone stony. “You’re not going into the Army. Or the Navy. Or nothing to do with war.”
“But you were a hero…”
“It ain’t like the movies!” his father snapped. “That propaganda swill! It’s all hogwash.”
Tom took a deep breath and sighed. They continuing hoeing the garden, but in silence.
The days of Summer were long. Tom aimed to make the most of them. After he and Little Tom had hoed the garden, he tied Old Henry to an old, rusty combine. It was small, but it served his purpose in the fields of wheat and rye and oats. Old Henry had more than enough gumption and endurance to make the combine efficient, and even had strength remaining afterward to pull the hay-rake. Eventually, however, Tom knew he would need to purchase another horse to ease Old Henry’s burdens. He might even have to purchase a herd of horses.
But he would not purchase a tractor.
The day grew hotter as the sun reached its zenith. The shade drew inward, shrinking in retreat. The cattle sought shelter under a copse of trees near the bullfrog-gibbering pond. Old Henry, too, sought what remained of the shade, returning to the gables. Tom sat in a rocking-chair on the porch while Lucille—sitting on the steps—mended a pair of his denim overalls. Little Tom lay on his stomach, glumly reading aloud from a book of collected works by Shakespeare.
“…and for one blast of thy minikin mouth, thy sheepe shall take no harme…”
Little Tom frowned down at the open book like it was a frog that had just spoken to him in French. He turned his head this way and that, like a box of crackerjacks from which he was trying to retrieve the sticker. Finally, he looked up at his father.
“Pa, what does that mean?”
Tom, who had been erstwhile staring out at something in the meadow, turned and looked at his son with some confusion.
“What does ‘minikin’ mean? What does any of it mean?”
“Minikin?” Tom said, considering. “I think it means ‘small’. Like ‘munchkins’ in the Wizard of Oz. They’re small people.”
“Oh,” Little Tom said. He looked down at the book again, puzzling over the phrase. After a long beat, he gave up, and began to read again, mechanically speaking without emphasis or comprehension.
Lucille stood up from the steps and went to Tom, laying the overalls in her husband’s lap.
“Finished,” she said.
“Thank you, darling,” Tom said. His eyes remained in the meadow, but also seemed much farther away than that. He had ceased rocking his rocking-chair.
“We need more salt,” Lucille said, standing next to her husband. “And more flour.”
“We’ll have flour soon enough,” Tom said. “When I get the mill working again.”
“We’ll need flour sooner than that,” Lucille said. Her tone was one of threadbare patience. “And the salt. We need salt.”
“I’ll take Old Henry into town tomorrow,” Tom said. “If I leave early in the morning I should be back by the evening.”
“If we had a truck…” his wife began to say.
There was creaking sound that silenced her, but it was not the sound of the rocking-chair on the porch. It was coming from Tom.
“I don’t want to argue about this, Lucy,” he said quietly. “You know how I feel about it.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “But it would make things easier for us. Easier for all of us. We could even go into town for church on Sundays like a normal family.”
Tom chuckled mirthlessly. “You can pray here as well as pray there,” he said. “God ain’t gonna’ hear you, anyhow. He is deaf. We deafened him with that bang, Lucy.” He laughed a dry, cynic’s laugh. “He’s always been hard of hearing, come to think of it.”
“Tom,” she said, tremulously. “Tom, we all could use with some more society. You could go to Grenwich and see your friends. Talk to them. Maybe you’d feel better. And Little Tom needs to be around other children.”
“He’ll be around other children when he goes back to school,” Tom said.
“But he has to stay with his aunt, then,” she said. “And God knows my sister is good to him, but it makes this place awfully lonesome when he’s gone. Because you’re gone most of the time, Tom. You go off in your little world and you don’t even seem to be home when you are home…”
“Lucy…” Tom said.
“It’s not like I don’t know how you feel, Tom,” she continued, speaking over him. “But wallowing in it is not healthy for you. You got to see things the way they are. It was a necessary evil. If you like, a truck is a necessary evil, too. You don’t even have to drive it. I could drive it. I drove the girls around during the war. I could drive Little Tom to school every day. We have more than enough money. Daddy saw to that…”
“Lucy…” Tom said.
“And it’s not even the same, Tom. It’s just a gasoline engine. People use them all the time. It won’t explode or catch fire…”
Tom stood up suddenly, his eyes affixed somewhere far away. He stepped off the porch, walking intently toward the meadow. He did not stop at the blazing heat or the glare of the sun. He did not stop at the buzzing deerflies that swirled around him like hateful memories. He did not stop at the echo of his wife’s voice. He walked directly to the gate in the center of the meadow, halting only as its shadow fell upon his boots.
It was not a normal gate. Firstly, it had no fence upon which it hinged to open and close, nor did it have a latch. In appearance and function it was not a Western-style gate for cattle. It was a post-and-lintel construct with two rounded columns of wood and a curved lintel in the traditional Japanese style. It was what Tom knew to be called a “torii gate”. It was blackened and scorched, the wood seemingly ready to collapse unto ash at any moment. The gate appeared as if it had been struck by lightning and set ablaze. As he entered the gate and left the meadow behind he could hear the air raid siren. He heard people distantly. He heard wails of grief and screams of agony. He heard a distant hum, like that of thunder protracted unto a single deafening note. He was no longer on his farm. He walked desolate streets where wooden buildings had been scattered, their frames and walls smoldering like twigs from a dead bonfire. The sidewalks were littered with debris and soot. The air tingled and the sky was bright where the clouds had been blown away. In the distance a blinding light was only now fading, like sunset, and a cloudy figure danced on the horizon. It was a pillar of clouds, but it was also a dancing boy blowing his horn. Tom knew the name of that dancing boy. He dared not speak it.
There were no other people on the decimated streets. There were only shadows burned into walls that aped in deathly stillness the silhouettes of men and women and children. Tom averted his eyes, yet he saw them elsewhere also: along crumbling facades, on the posts of a temple, skewed on the sidewalk itself. Their ashes entered his lungs, making him cough. Tears came to his eyes, beckoned by the cindery air.
The people were gone, yet they were everywhere.
Tom turned away, staggering toward the torii gate. He could see the meadow between the charred posts. Both sides of the torii gate were bright, yet only one was bright with a natural light. He walked through the gate for the countless time. He had been through it so many times now and yet it hurt nonetheless.
Tom left the torii gate and stood once again in his meadow. The gate was gone and the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky. His wife stood on the porch of the small farmhouse. Ahead of her, running across the field, came Little Tom. He smiled as he ran, pointing up at the sky. A plane flew overhead, its engine whirring noisily. The minikin boy slowed, his smile drooping into a gawping frown. Tom heard a horn blast in the air. In horror he watched as his son began to melt before his eyes, his skin peeling and blackening like the skin of a rotten onion. Smoke spewed from his body and soon his eyes burst into flame, burning hollow to empty eye sockets that stared darkly into the realm of Death. He crumbled to a heap of bones upon the meadow. Tom fell to his knees and wept.
When his son reached him, he hugged his father with arms browned by the sun, but otherwise unblemished.
“It’s okay, pa,” his son said. “The war’s over. We won.”
“Not all of us,” his father said, hugging his son. “Not all of us…”
The tall preacher lays his palm upon the man’s forehead. With his other hand the preacher cradles the man’s nape. All around them the Snake River flows easily, aglitter in the dawn. The preacher speaks loudly, clearly, so that the rest of his followers may hear as they watch from the bank of the river.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The man takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The preacher lowers the man backwards into the gilded water, pausing a moment as the man disappears into the sky on the water, and then raises him, holding him steadily as the man breathes out and blinks rapidly into the bright light of a new day. His white long-johns are soaked through. Droplets of water stud him like diamonds.
“Thank you, preacher,” the man says.
“Thank the Lord, Billy,” the preacher says. His black robe is like a raven perched amidst the river. “Forgiveness is His alone.”
Billy nods and then crosses himself, trudging now to the bank of the river to join with the others, drying in the sun. He sits down, his mousy hair wet and lank. He smiles through his wet beard as if a boy again, and the rest of the followers return his smile with childlike joy.
The preacher looks upon them with the look of a shepherd for his sheep. Then, with a gesture, he invites the next member of his flock forward into the waters to be baptized for the new day of pious devotion.
The sun rises higher and the day grows hotter, dustier. The flock harvests the crops they grow near their settlement of tents and wagons and palisades. Some men go fishing for trout in the river to add to the evening’s meal. The preacher stands solemnly nearby, a bible in his hand and his cool gray eyes watchful of his flock. The sun bakes skin and earth unto a clay. The preacher vows that he will mold the clay as God molded Adam.
Billy approaches the preacher, his breeches and hat dusty with the work of the day. The young man’s eyes squint perpetually, the sun having cracked wrinkles prematurely beneath them. The young man’s bare torso is as gaunt as Christ on a Catholic crucifix.
“Preacher,” Billy says, “I wanted to apologize.”
“Oh?” the preacher says. “There is no need. That is why I baptize you every morning. Your sins are washed away.”
Billy lets his eyes drop to the sagebrush and other shrubs scattered across the expanse between himself and the mountain-hemmed horizon. The preacher seems taller than the mountains themselves, and looms over all things.
“It’s not my sins I’m worried about, preacher. It’s those of…of my wife.”
The preacher gazes toward the womenfolk as they busily pick green beans. Sarah stoops among them, her red hair ablaze in the afternoon sun.
“And how has Sarah trespassed against God?”
“Sarah avoids you, preacher,” Billy says. “She doesn’t take baptism every morning. And for that, I am sorry.”
“She will see the light,” the preacher says. “With time. She will make a goodly wife.”
Billy sighs and looks away. His voice is despondent. “I like to believe so, preacher. But…”
He falls to silence.
“But?” the preacher says.
“But I fear she is going astray,” Billy says, his voice trembling. “She…disappears sometimes. Goes missing. At night…”
“And you believe she is meeting with someone else among my flock?” the preacher says, his gray eyes grim.
“No, no!” Billy says, hastily. “I would never doubt my neighbor. I know we are all Faithful here.”
The preacher turns his gray eyes upon the young man, his gaze burnishing and unblinking; steadfast as the sun itself. “Then what do you suspect?”
Billy looks to his wife kneeling among the green beans, then lets his eyes drift away in defeated silence.
The preacher’s voice is softer.
“Billy? If you suspect something, you must speak it, if not to unburden yourself, then at least to unburden the air. Unspoken suspicions are phantoms that grow in power and darken all that they touch with their shadows.”
“I don’t know, preacher,” Billy says, heavily. “Maybe it is just a phantom in my head.”
The preacher nods. “Do you know what dispels phantoms?”
“What?” Billy says, looking up with expectant hope at the preacher.
“The sun,” the preacher says. “And honest labor beneath the sun.”
“You’re right, preacher,” Billy says. “I need to work off this restlessness.”
Billy returns to the crops, taking up a hoe and weeding alongside the other members of the flock. The preacher watches him for a long moment, then turns his eyes elsewhere. Like bloated deerflies his black pupils wander about slowly, restlessly, from person to person, coming, at length, to Billy’s wife, Sarah. Her hair is as blood among the beans. She glances up, notices the preacher’s gaze, and turns quickly away.
After dinner—when the long day has settled its ashes on the horizon—the preacher reads to his flock passages from his bible. He stands tall while they sit low before him, wet with the sweat of their labors as if they have only recently emerged from their baptism in the river.
“You will know them by their fruits,” the preacher reads. “Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruits…”
Billy listens attentively, but is clearly distressed. His wife is not beside him, nor among the congregation. The preacher notices this, too, but says nothing. He reads until the fire dies out in the West, then wishes his flock a good evening and the sleep of the righteous. His flock scatters to their various concerns; some to chores, others to conversation and innocent pastimes.
As the preacher walks toward his tent he is intercepted by the wife of one of his followers.
“Preacher, that was a fine sermon,” she says.
“The Lord saw fit to make it so,” the preacher says.
She follows him for some time, quietly.
“I was curious,” she says as he reaches his tent. “Why not baptize your flock at dusk, too, preacher? Why let their sins follow them into their dreams?”
The preacher does not face her. His tent is as tall as he is, and is arranged on tall wooden posts. He does not look at the young woman, even as she peers boldly up at him. He parts the flap of his tent, holding it with one hand while he stands erect, tall, like a dark sentinel whose dark hair reaches the darkening sky and its nebulous stars. His eyes do not meet her, even still.
“So you may see the fruits of your sins bloom in the night,” the preacher says. “So you may dream the guilt that you harvest from sins and learn from them the lessons upon waking, otherwise you will waken in the next life not to Heaven, but to the flaming orchard that is Hell.”
She snorts, then leaves. The preacher retires inside his tent.
The moon is pale as a salmon’s belly. The wolves howl in the distant mountains to welcome the moon. The fires die around the settlement and the flock retires to bed.
A voice calls faintly to the preacher from beyond his tent.
“Preacher? Preacher, can I have a word? Please?”
The preacher rises from bed, then goes quickly to the flap.
“Billy?” he says.
“Yes, preacher,” Billy says, glumly. “I am sorry, preacher.”
“Give me a moment, Billy, and I will be out.”
The preacher pulls on his long-johns and then his black robe. He regards his bed for a moment, in regret, then opens the flap and exits his tent. Billy’s face is distraught in the moonlight.
“Sarah has gone missing,” he says. “Preacher, you have to help me convince her to take to the Lord’s path again.”
“She is likely making night-soil,” the preacher says.
“I’d like to believe that, preacher,” Billy says. “But she has been gone for so long now.” His eyes are as wide as a salmon’s with distress. “I’m afraid she is lost to me.”
“You must believe in the Lord’s guidance,” the preacher says, sternly. “In all things His hand works His will.”
Billy hangs his head. “I know, preacher…I know…but…”
“Do not persist in this mistaken belief,” the preacher warns him. “Or it will unmake you and all of the hard work you have done for this refuge of souls.”
“I know…preacher…but Sarah…she’s been acting strange for so long now…”
The preacher’s tone is curt. “Do you not think the Lord capable of changing hearts?”
Tears glisten on Billy’s cheeks. He trembles with indecision and doubt. His voice cracks as he speaks. “I know, preacher, but what if she has turned her back on the Lord?”
“Your doubt in the Lord’s influence is a sin,” the preacher says. He shakes his head angrily, looking from Billy back to his tent. At length, he sighs in resignation. “Come. I will baptize you again. This time, perhaps, you will feel the power of Jesus Christ and, then, the truth of these petty frets will be laid bare before you.”
The preacher leads Billy to the river, his shadowy figure seemingly as tall as an onyx steeple in the moonlight. The preacher steps into the shoals, gesturing for Billy to follow. Billy hesitates but a moment, but then, too, steps into the shoals, feeling the steady flow pull at his sorrow-stricken knees. He stumbles as if burdened beneath a great weight, but the preacher steadies him.
“Billy,” the preacher says. “Doubt in your wife is doubt in the love of the Lord. Do you ask forgiveness for this human failing?”
Billy, sobbing, nods. “Yes. Please, God, I ask for forgiveness!”
The preacher puts his large palm upon Billy’s forehead, and cradles his nape gently with his other hand. The preacher pauses, hearing two wolves howl together in the distance. He then continues.
“May yesterday’s sins be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The preacher dips Billy backwards into the river. He waits a moment, says a short prayer, and twists his hands in opposite directions. This done, he trudges back to the bank and—robe weighed down with water—emerges from the river. Returning to his tent, he enters and takes off his wet robe, long-johns, and lays down next to the figure awaiting his return.
A new day dawns and Billy’s limp body is washed away by the river, his arms outspread as he floats along an easy flow mirroring the sky.
The lawn was buried with orange and brown oak leaves. More leaves clung to the branches above. It was mid-Fall. The breeze was cool, chilling Jordan’s bare legs as she stretched in the backyard. The leotard was thin against the Autumn cold, but practice would soon warm her limbs with the heat of her balance beam performance. And she lived for the performance on the balance beam.
Jordan kept her blonde hair shortly cropped, just like her Olympic hero, Kerri Strug, and just like Kerri Strug, Jordan was short. Also much like her heroine, Jordan was compact, stout, and compressed from years of gymnastic tumbling. She wanted to compete in the Olympics within three years, and she knew her strength lie on the balance beam. Her father had built this balance beam two years ago, for her thirteenth birthday, after much pleading and begging. He feared that she would harm herself in the yard. She said she needed more practice at home. Jordan’s father conceded, buying mats and setting them around the beam. These mats were now buried in leaves, much like the rest of the tree-columned yard. The yard itself was a mess. Her father had not raked it in a month. He had been too busy working overtime at the factory. And, with the exception of an acorn here and there, Jordan liked having the Autumnal detritus arrayed around her as she practiced. The leaves were jubilant in their colors and abundance, like tasteful confetti from a crowd that had recently passed through in celebration of her Olympic medal.
On the other hand, the thought of a loud crowd gave her conniptions. She did not like distraction. Cheers—real cheers from a live audience—did not energize her. She was not comfortable with her performance yet to perform for an audience and to feed off its energy. The good thing about living out in the woods—and not in the suburbs—was the silence. It allowed her to concentrate without distraction. That was not to say there was no ambience. The squirrels squabbled sometimes, and the birds chirped, but these sounds were negligible when she was focused.
Jordan stretched, warmed up, and mentally prepared herself. In time she felt ready to face the balance beam. She did not hesitate. Scattering the leaves with her bare feet, the young gymnast ran, vaulted, and wheeled gracefully onto the beam. She began her routine. It was an unbroken series of motions: tumbling, rolling, dipping, and rising into a handstand that halted near the end of the balance beam. Slowly wheeling over to grip the very edge with her toes, she then did a little hop to about-face, steadied and readied herself, then launched into a cartwheel, a back hand-spring, and concluded with a back-flip that triumphed with a peacock flaunt of the arms. It was all muscle-memory. She performed the series again, and then again. She felt like a squirrel as she went foot to hand to foot, vaulting and spinning and leaping and soaring. She felt like a bird, springing and kicking her legs out like the wings of a bird flapping toward the heights. Her soul was chimeric when she was performing gymnastics. The balance beam was a totem along which she traversed spirit animals with grand exultation. She focused her mind on breathing properly and concentrated her eyes on one spot while her body rotated about, so as to not make herself sick. Yet, the motion of the world still blurred and shifted in her vision, and she felt herself totter and sway with dizziness.
And so when she glimpsed the little man sitting on the bough above her, she nearly fell, halting and swinging her arms wildly like a cartoon character trying to fly after coming to the edge of a cliff. Regaining her balance, Jordan took a deep breath and exhaled, hands on her knees and her head feeling dizzy with the blurring motion. She was too heady. Blood beat in her ears like woodpeckers seeking worms. She was seeing things.
Or so she thought.
“What a lovely lass ye be,” a voice said.
Jordan looked up at the bough of the old oak tree. Head steadied now, she still saw the little man. He was real, to her surprise, and not just an image conjured by whirling motion and swirling vision.
“A lovely lass indeed! As an oak and a willow tree made as one! A dryad in the making!”
He was short and had orange hair—bright orange hair, like fire atop his head—and the freckles on his pale body flared like fire, too. A crown of antlers rose crookedly from his head. He wore a skirt of leaves, but, at such a high angle, the skirt did not conceal his furry deer legs, nor the genitals beneath the skirt. His priapism was comically large, and, as such, frightening to Jordan.
“What are you?” she demanded. It never occurred to her that the little man was a human being. Seeing him was like seeing a Unicorn or a Leprechaun: merely seeing them, though absurd, seemed to force the rational mind to surrender to the otherworldliness of it.
“What am I?” he says with a goat’s grin. “Why, ye say it as if I be what is unnatural, but, my lass, I am as natural as ye. And just as unique as ye.”
Jordan stood on the balance beam with her eyes averted from the little man. She could not look at him without looking at the obscene appendage beneath his skirt, and so she looked to the side, and only occasionally looked at him, just to verify that he was still sitting there; that he was still watching her with his lecher’s leer.
“What…do you want?” she whispered. She did not need to ask. She could see what he wanted. It was obvious.
“To ask ye what ye want,” he said.
“I want you to leave…” she whispered.
He stood up on the bough now, hooves apart, hands on his hips, arms akimbo, and the obscenity between his legs straight out at attention. He looked like an absurd Jolly Green Giant, only orange and pale and diminutive and lewd. He scratched his ear thoughtfully. It was the ear of a stag, not a man.
“I will leave,” he said, “if ye wish it. But in the depths of ye heart ye do not wish it so, my sweet dryad.”
Jordan looked at her house. Her father was still at work, and the windows were dark. Her mother lived with a boyfriend miles away from here. The nearest neighbor was a mile down the road. Jordan herself was no pushover, though. She had broad shoulders and arms stronger than most boys her age. She was an athlete, and though she was short, the orange-haired man was shorter. If she wanted to, she could kick hard as a horse.
Yet, his short stature made his obscenity seem all the larger by comparison. And there was a certainty in his grin, a self-assurance, and she did not feel the same confidence that he obviously felt. He seemed to have an invisible audience cheering him on, whereas the applause were silent for her.
Jordan’s indecision prompted the little man to speak.
“Ye seek the Flame, do ye not?” he said. “The old Greek Flame? The Flame of glory? The Flame of Olympus?”
“Flame?” she said, her mind awhirl with the iconic Olympic torch.
“Yes,” the little man said. “The Flame of olden days, and of days to come. It does not belong to the Greeks, nor to any one people. It is the Flame of Prometheus and Agni and Kagu-tsuchi and Loki and Gibil. It is the Flame of glory and celebration and…sacrifice.”
The last word he whispered. Jordan could barely discern it from the rustling of a squirrel amongst the distant leaves.
“Sacrifice?” she said. She fidgeted on the balance beam and, though she was merely standing still, she almost lost her balance. “What sacrifice?”
The little man’s grin spread wider. “Ye know of what it is I speak.” His orange eyes surveyed her, up and down, and he licked his lips. “Ye innocence.”
Jordan was wordless, oscillating on the beam. Unconsciously her hand adjusted her leotard, and the little man’s eyes grew wide with delight.
“Do ye wish to stand for years, my dryad,” he prodded her, “or do ye wish to fall from greatness? There is always a price. There is a price if ye do not feed the Flame. A bonfire is kindled for the village, and the world is nothing but giant villages now, my little leaflet. The bigger the villages, the bigger the bonfires, the bigger the Flame. From Marathon to Munich. Between the seasons of Beltane and Onsen and Burning Man and Thimithi, the Flame must be fed. The Feat must be done and the Flame must be fed. The season’s burning always returns.”
A chill in her bones made Jordan tremble. It was not the wind.
“Will ye bend or will ye break?” the little man wondered aloud, scratching the hairs on his chin. “And for what? Ye innocence slips away even now, so why not surrender it for a greater gain?”
“I will earn my place on my own,” she said. Her voice seemed tenuous in that Autumnal silence, as if it had been drowned beneath the cheer of an audience to which she was somehow deaf and blind.
“Pride precedes the Fall,” the little man said, his grin disappearing. “Just as Summer precedes the Fall. How confident humans are in the splendor of warm days and ample food!” He grinned again, maliciously now. “How bitter they feel when the cold winds rake at their starving ribs. Wouldn’t ye rather be a dryad than a mere human being? Wouldn’t ye rather be eternal than brief as a leaf? Dryads grow on Mt. Olympus, my lass, but no mere woman may go there unless she offers a god something of value.” Again he eyed her thighs, and the place between them where the leotard pinched. “The summit of Olympus is good soil, my lass.”
“No!” she gasped, finding her throat choked with fear…and sadness.
He shrugged, then turned as if to leave. Much to her own horror, Jordan called out to him.
He grinned at her over his pale, freckled shoulder. Seeing his grin, she felt her resolve grow stronger. Her momentary weakness gave way to anger.
“I will succeed on my own,” she said. “I don’t need you. I have talent. I have skills and heart and passion!”
“So do thousands of other lasses,” he says. “But they grow no more than as saplings before wilting away into obscurity. Some are no more than acorns, stagnant and squandered in unfertile soil.”
The little man laughed, then stepped off the branch. He did not fall, nor did he fly away. He simply disappeared into the orange leaves like he never was.
As soon as the little man vanished Jordan forgot about him. She wondered how she had gotten off the balance beam and came to be standing in the leaves. Something else bothered her, too, but she did not know what it was. She could not remember.
Taking a deep breath, Jordan hopped back up onto the balance beam and walked to and fro, trying to shake the strange chills she felt in her limbs. The fire seemed to have gone out of her. She did some warm-up exercises, trying to rekindle it. All around her the trees were orange and fluttered as if aflame, yet the chill breeze stiffened her limbs. The cold stiffness clamped at her neck and shoulders and hips and knees. The icy claws dug in and clutched at her sinews and her tendons, tightening around her muscles and her bones.
Still, she persisted. She shook out her joints, warmed her limbs, and steadied her breath. She walked across the balance beam as if in a firewalking ritual. A matchstick struck against her heart and flared to life. The warmth spread and she felt her skin grow hot against the cool winds. Energized with heat, she renewed her practice, channeling her whole soul into her routine. She exulted in her speed and technique. She triumphed in her passion aglow with her own inner fire.
The stiffness was sudden and excruciating, seizing the arch of her foot with a paroxysm of pain. She felt her foot spasm with an arthritic grip, felt her body flail wildly as she lost her balance and, with her accrued momentum, tumbled off the beam. She then felt the impact of her head on the leaf-strewn lawn, felt the snapping of her neck, and then, at last, felt nothing at all. She was a broken sapling crumpled upon the ground. Somewhere in the flaming leaves overhead she heard a little man’s laughter. It was the last sound she heard as her hopes and dreams extinguished on the summit of Mt. Olympus.
The scale of the moon carp gleamed in Katashi’s palm, flashing like polished porcelain, or perhaps lacquered bone. He returned it to the pouch hidden beneath his breastplate. The bamboo breastplate was charred and scarred, haunted by the battle from which Katashi had forsaken his sworn service to the Tanaka clan. It had been a sardonic retreat into the woods. He fancied the idea of finding another clan to serve, such as in Kyoto, but halfway there abandoned the plan. Having no home, he made a home for himself here, in this valley beneath the howling mountains, and earning his life as a bandit with a dull blade and sharp threats.
The valley was an ideal place to stake the tearaway remainder of his life. Cutting through its wooded beauty was an important road that led to Kyoto and, so, was frequented by both riffraff and riches. There was a river that flowed like a sacred serpent nearby, replete with fish and frogs and such, and the woods was an assembly of the loveliest trees. Cedars, pines, maples, sakuras, dogwoods, plum, cherry trees. There were momiji trees with their leaves like a fan of sharp spear blades, and mountain ash, and the mighty oaks, their strange limbs frozen in kabuki dances. Katashi cherished trees, and the lovely landscape. He may not have adhered to Bushido now, but the appreciation of beauty still burned warmly in his breast long after all other things—like etiquette and Zen Buddhism—had extinguished. Sometimes, too, when the moon rode the clouds high like a princess in a palanquin, Katashi composed poetry in his head in celebration of the beauty of that hour. Sometimes the poetry visited him in the hot noon when he cooled himself in the shade of the woods, or drank water from the pools that spooled together from the waters of the mountains looming over that valley.
And yet, Katashi was not happy. He could be content, and even feel vacant of want, but such moments ebbed away as the flames and smoke rose again in his memories, reminding him of the Tanaka estate collapsing to ash. Whereas he used to meditate, now he could never sit still long enough to find inner peace. Rather, the memories assailed him on raven wings, like Tengu hellbent on mischief. In many ways, Katashi was a bitter man, and tasted much of bitter fruit. His life under the Tanaka clan had been a sweet fruit of privilege fed on the bitter duty of blood. This was why he had always enjoyed persimmons, whether ripe or unripened. The bitter and the sweet had their place. Green tea, too, was what he enjoyed, and the bitterer the better. It awakened his senses and concentrated his mind before battle. And after each battle in service to his lord, when he had often returned to the Tanaka estate, he was pleased to eat sweet rice and candies. He had taken pleasure in the indulgence of life in all of its diametric opposites.
Nowadays Katashi gathered and dried his own tea, and fished, and stole sacks of rice as he needed them during the Winter. He had few possessions, but they were enough to sustain him: his dull blade, a fishing spear, a tea cup, and a pot with which he cooked his fish, his rice, and brewed his tea.
And then came a day of yet greater change for the ronin. It had begun like all others. He rose, brewed tea, speared his breakfast in the river, cooked, ate, and then surveyed the valley road for passing spoils. He soon found them.
It was a group of monks, three in all, escorted by two samurai. The three monks surely had coins for their journey. The eldest monk looked especially old and presumptuous. The middle-aged monk looked chubby about his jowls and had a protuberant belly, meaning he ate well. The third monk was a young man; slender and almost feminine of feature. Surely, Katashi thought, these monks had coins.
Katashi then studied the two samurai closely, wondering which one he should dispatch first. Before he could come to a decision, however, a volley of roars rose and a group of bandits besieged the small group. They must have been new to the area, for Katashi had never seen them before. They wore bits of stolen armor here and there, used axes and kamas and secondhand blades. One used a fishing spear. Katashi watched grimly as the samurai were overwhelmed. He would have, at least, killed them honorably, not dishonorably ambush them with lackeys to assist. Face to face duels were his way. This, on the other hand, was a shameful display. Even so, one of the samurai managed to deflect the ambush and maim one of his attackers before he was cut down. He died with hatred etched on his face, and without a yelp of protest. Katashi would have felt honored to kill such a man, but the bandits did not indulge such thoughts. The moment the samurai fell the bandits fell upon him like dogs, arguing over who would claim his blade. There were five bandits in all, but the fifth was weeping on the ground, his lifeblood spilling out of his severed arm. The monks huddled together, but were untouched. Either they had nothing the bandits desired or the bandits feared hurting holy men.
Katashi never feared hurting holy men, nor killing them. They were often possessed of more wealth than their escorts.
At length, the four bandits had taken what they desired and fled into the forest. The fifth remained on the road, coiled like an infant and clutching the severed stump of his arm. The youngest monk attempted to tend to his wound, but the other two monks upbraided him.
“Let the dog die,” the eldest monk said. He wore a white robe and his eyes were hard, cold, and black like onyx. “Karma dictates his fate, and his fate will see him as a dog in the next life, or something worse.”
“But master…” the young monk said.
The other monk spoke up, his voice authoritative. “Do not question your better. You must remember how fortunate you are to have been taken upon this journey.” This monk wore a black robe and was of an age between the eldest and the youngest. “Let the dead lie, and let the dying follow suit.”
The youngest monk rose reluctantly and went from the bandit to the two dead samurai. The latter two had been stripped and bled freely from their fateful wounds upon the road.
“Do not touch the dead,” the black-robed monk commanded. “You will taint yourself with the corruption of death, and so doom us all. We must return to Kyoto and acquire another escort.”
“But the mountain…” the young monk protested.
“It will remain until we return,” the middle-aged monk said. “We must not dare the mountains unprotected. A hasty foot leads to a foolish fall. And youthful feet are hastiest of all.”
“But the demons will kill again,” the young monk said. “We have waited too long to protect the people of the village. Too many have died, and many more will die tonight.”
The two older monks reddened at the young monk’s words, scowls drawn on both men’s faces.
“We could not address this problem until now,” the middle-aged monk growled. “Lord Noteru had no Samurai to spare, as you know, and now we must report to him the deaths of two of his loyal men. He will not be pleased and will likely not be urgent in sparing more men in our mission.”
It was then that Katashi emerged from the shadows of the woods.
“The boy has bamboo for a spine,” he said, “or perhaps bamboo for his head.”
Katashi was pleased by the surprise on the monks’ faces. The two older monks stepped back as the imposing ronin approached. The young monk stood defiant. Katashi looked him up and down, grinning.
“Perhaps both, though he looks more a woman than the last I rutted upon.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk asked. “Did your gang not spill enough blood already?”
“I do not belong to them,” Katashi said, a grim smile upon his face. “If I did belong to them I would have cut them down rather than see them fight an outnumbered force so cowardly.”
“A murderer with principle!,” scoffed the middle-aged monk.
“What is a Samurai except that?” Katashi said. “Though also with a master, and since I have none, I am simply a ronin.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk demanded. “Our escort has been slain and stripped of all possessions. There is nothing we can offer you. We are holy men. We have no need of earthly possessions, and so no wealth to tempt your wickedness.”
Katashi laughed mirthlessly. “The thick robes of holy men have always concealed secret wealth, and secret wickedness. I ask only for wealth, however. Coins. Now.”
The two elder monks exchanged irritated glances, then disdainful glances toward the corpses of their guards. The eldest monk nodded to the middle-aged monk. The middle-aged monk withdrew a pouch from his robe. It jingled.
“You profane man,” the middle-aged monk complained. “It will buy you only your way into the next life as a worm.”
The monk handed the pouch of coins to Katashi.
“A peaceful, needful life,” Katashi said. He put the pouch within his breastplate, beside the pouch with the white koi scale. “Tilling the earth and helping a fisherman’s hook to feed his family. Much more needful a life than that of a monk, I should think.”
“You despicable blasphemer!” the middle-aged monk ejaculated. “You do not deserve that gold!”
“Or perhaps I could devise a need of you, after all,” Katashi said. He drew his katana. “My blade is dull and wants testing. Perhaps I should test its sharpness with a holy man’s neck.” His eyes went from one monk to the other. “But which one?” His eyes fell upon the eldest monk. “The oldest? His is sure to be tough enough to test a blade. His neck is so corded with age, like a tree’s trunk.” He looked at the middle-aged monk. “Or perhaps the fat one would be a better test of a blade. His neck is thickly swollen and surely as difficult to severe as a hog’s head from its body.”
The middle-aged monk backed away, as did the eldest monk.
Katashi turned toward the young monk. “Your neck is young and strong,” he said. “It might prove to be the best test of all. What do you say to that?”
“If you must test your sword,” the young monk said, “then please do so. But please do so after we have cleansed this mountain of corruption.”
Katashi was taken aback, but did not let on. “You care very much about this mountain,” he said.
“It is not just the mountain,” the young monk said. “It is a matter of the villages near here. This is crucial for saving lives and easing suffering.”
“The mountain must wait,” the eldest monk said.
This caused the youngest monk more upset than anything the ronin had said to him thus far. “But master! We must purify the mountain!”
“We cannot even defend ourselves against this wind-blown ruffian,” the middle-aged monk said, turning on the young monk. “How are we to defend ourselves against what we will face in the mountains?”
Katashi sheathed his blade, and laughed.
“Why would you not simply trust in the Buddha to see you safely to your destination? Why would you need armed warriors for escorts? Or is it that Buddha is a matter of your occupation rather than your belief?”
“We do believe in Buddha,” the middle-aged monk retorted testily. “But not everyone believes, and not everyone who believes behaves as if they believe.”
Katashi laughed again. “Very true. Just so, I believe in Buddha, and I carry a blade with me, for Buddha does nothing for us. He is too lost in the bliss of his own Satori to care for us or anyone except himself.”
The monks gasped. The middle-aged monk glowered and spoke with scorn.
“You are an endless well of blasphemies!” he snapped. “Your soul is lost! You will never break the cycle! Instead, you will descend into blood-madness and become an Oni!”
Katashi nodded gravely. “Perhaps I have descended and become an Oni already. I have killed hundreds, you know, and the Buddha never interfered on their behalf. Nor on my own. Rivers of blood have flowed and, in the center of it, like an unfeeling stone, the Buddha has slept, indifferent to the world.”
The two older monks exchanged looks again.
“It is time to depart,” the eldest monk said, folding his arms and turning away. “Come. Leave the wretch to his fate.”
“Do as you please,” Katashi said. “Your coin has bought you your way. Tread your path as you wish, but know the Buddha does not care.”
The two monks began to walk down the valley path. The youngest monk did not follow.
“I will not forsake the mountain,” the young monk said. “I will continue on alone.”
“It will be dark soon,” the elder monk said. “And you have no protection.”
“I have faith in the Buddha,” the young monk said. “I need nought else.”
Katashi should have laughed, and yet he did not. There was a steel-edged resolve in the young man’s tone that reminded Katashi of the battlefield. And while he may have dismissed the Samurai code and the Eightfold Path of the Buddha, he did not dismiss the courage of a man, especially combating that devil known as Circumstance.
“A fool, then,” the middle-aged monk said. “I will dedicate a Lotus Sutra to you in the hope that you will be reborn into a fairer realm. Farewell.”
The two monks went their way. The young monk went his way, through a torii gate and up a long-forsaken mountain path. Katashi, curious, followed the monk from within the woods. He was in want of diversion, and would find it.
It was not long before the sun set and the shadows stretched, darkened, and pooled as a lake in the valley. Despite the darkness of the woods, the monk did not falter, but continued up the mountain at the same determined pace as when there was still sunlight with which to see.
To Katashi’s surprise, there were lights along the path up the mountain— burning blue lights here and there among the trees and along the path. Voices whispered and murmured as the monk approached. Katashi heard them, too, coming from behind him, beside him, above him, below him. He was used to opponents of flesh and blood, not apparitions which a blade could not wound. Yet, he would not cower so long as the monk did not.
The monk pulled up his orange sleeves, exposing his hands. Within them he clutched prayer beads. As the burning blue flames encircled him, he bowed his head and raised his hands, entwined by the beads. Within the angry convergence of the blue light the monk prayed. The flames drew nearer, as if to engulf him, but he did not mind them, continuing with his prayer. The flames began to dwindle, and their voices became desperate. They cried and they wailed. They vowed revenge, and enumerated their sorrows. Nonetheless, the monk prayed, his voice a steady lullaby in the otherworldly light. By and by, they diminished, becoming so small that they were like fireflies among the trees, and then faraway stars, and then glinting embers. At last, the flames dissipated entirely, leaving only the monk on the path, and Katashi in the woods.
The monk turned and looked directly where Katashi concealed himself behind an ash tree. The ronin stepped forward
“Your blade will not always protect you,” the monk said. “Often it will harm you, even if it never spills one drop of your blood.”
Katashi stepped forward onto the mountain path. “What were those flames?”
“Onibi,” the monk said. “Lost spirits. The victims, I believe, of the evil that lurks atop these mountains.”
“Where did they go? Did you destroy them?”
“I sent them forth from their suffering,” the monk said. “I hope they find peace in the next life to come.”
Katashi snorted. “Doubtful. There is no peace in this life or any other. They go from one storm to another, and there is no refuge.”
The monk withdrew his hands and prayer beads into his sleeves, then crossed his arms. “Why do you shadow me?” he asked.
Katashi ignored the question. “I am surprised you could sense me. I am silent as a fox when I desire to be.”
“Your walk is not of the woods, however much you wish it to be. You are a man too much in disharmony with himself to ever be in harmony with the world.”
Katashi frowned. “You speak with high-hand when you wish. Were you born of a noble family?”
“No,” the monk said, continuing his uphill walk. “I was born of a humble fisherman.”
“And yet the Buddha was a prince,” Katashi said, following the monk with an easy gait. “He knew nothing of suffering, yet is supposed to somehow teach us how to overcome it. Not all of us have castles and kings to keep us sheltered from suffering.”
“You wish to antagonize me,” the monk said. “But you only succeed in revealing the extent of your own suffering.”
Katashi grinned mirthlessly. “I have not suffered more than most, except, perhaps, those whom I met and slew upon the battlefield.”
“You relish in death,” the monk said. He shook his bald head with pity. “Just so, I will pray for you, invoking the Buddha to guide your soul to its inmost peace.”
“There is no peace hidden there, either,” Katashi said, his tone harder now. “No more than there is peace in the inmost of a storm. Lightning crashes all around. The winds howl. The rains fall. The sky grows dark and the people tremble in their splintered homes. Life is dynamic. Only after death is peace attained, and even then it is not stillness, but decay as Life again eats away restlessly upon the ruined flesh.”
“You do not respect the Buddha’s teachings,” the monk said.
“Nor the teachers of those teachings,” Katashi said grimly. “If you only knew how many holy men I have slain, you would quiver in your robe.”
“Why have you not slain me?” the monk asked. “Why did you not slay my brothers? You could have easily done so.”
“I did not slay your brothers because they will return with more coins,” Katashi said. “And you…well, I did not slay you because I judged it more entertaining to witness your failure upon the mountains than to kill you outright. Or, perhaps, I may just test my dull blade on your neck after all.”
The flapping of large wings and the strange cawing laughter of a crow interrupted their conversation. They looked to the treetops and saw a winged shadow pass over the pale moon. Its laughter echoed within the woods; at one moment behind them and another moment ahead; to the left, then to the right. The creature’s laughter was as coarse as an old crone’s cackle.
At length, a branch shook overhead and creaked beneath the weight of the figure.
“What a pair to see!” the coarse-throated voice crackled. “A monk and a ronin. What fun to be had! I can scarcely decide what to do first! Should I eat the monk’s eyes and replace them with his prayer beads? Or should I remove the ronin’s genitals and place them in his mouth?”
Katashi unsheathed his sword and pointed it toward the shadowy figure. The dull blade gleamed white in the moonlight. His voice rang out in challenge.
“Come and face me first, you presumptuous creature! I will cut your grandstanding pride down as a sickle the sapling!”
The branch shook and a great gust of wind rushed downward with the winged figure that landed before them.
“Face me, mortal,” the creature said, “and we shall test how well that dull blade cuts.”
The winged creature wore a black robe and a black raven’s hat, like a priest, but had a long nose extending out from a red face. In one clawed hand it held a black-bladed katana; in the other it held a scroll such as would adorn a temple. Written upon it was the Lotus Sutra, but distorted. Perverse.
Katashi stepped forward as the Tengu grinned. The monk interceded.
“Tengu,” the monk said. He held up his hands with the prayer beads entwined. “You must not face him. You will not win. Tengu were the demons that taught the warrior arts to Man.”
“I can fight him,” Katashi said, “and I will.”
“You will die,” the monk said.
“Then it shall be a glorious death,” Katashi said.
“And a glorious feast, too,” the Tengu said, laughing like a crow. “As are all the feasts provided us by the pride of Man.”
The creature slipped its blasphemous scroll into its black robe and held the handle of his katana with both clawed hands. Katashi dropped his sword into a low stance. The moon disappeared behind a wayward cloud, plunging the mountainside into a sea of darkness. Blade crashed against blade, and the darkness was flecked with flashes of light. Three clangorous strikes sounded and then the moon reappeared. Katashi and the Tengu had switched places. The young monk stumbled back in surprise, the Tengu only a few paces away from him.
“Clever creature,” Katashi said, “to use the darkness against men. But you fail to understand. I am no mere man, for you face a demon also.”
“Your boasts are most unseemly,” the Tengu said. The laughter was gone from his coarse corvine voice. Now remained only dreadful menace. “Luck struck thrice for you, and so is gone. Now only your dull blade and your skill remain, and what paltry things to safeguard your life! It will tatter like the flimsy threads of a spider’s web.”
“So says the firefly,” Katashi said, readying his blade in the high position. The moon gleamed, reflecting off of his blade to illuminate more clearly the dark eyes near which the blade arced.
The two warriors faced each other silently for a long time, as if waiting for another cloud to blind the moon. When the cloud came, at last, like a raven’s wing, there came five shrieking strikes of blade on blade, and sparks that seemed to alight upon the leaves of trees and burn a moment before fading once again into the uniform darkness.
The moon emerged again, and with her emergence came a gasp from the monk. Katashi stood beside him, and so, too, did the Tengu. But the Tengu remained standing only because Katashi’s blade held him up. The Tengu’s blade dropped to the ground and the Tengu slumped backwards, toward his crumpling wings. The Tengu’s words were mingled with blood and pain.
“Bested by a lowly man. What a pitiful thing.”
“No,” Katashi said, withdrawing his blade and letting the creature collapse upon the ground. “Bested by a superior demon.”
The Tengu dissipated into a flurry of black feathers, all of which were subsumed into the shadows. Only the demon’s sword remained. Katashi stooped and picked it up. Surveying its black blade for a moment, he discarded his old, dull sword and claimed the new black blade in its place. He sheathed it and was pleased by the shriek of its blade in the scabbard.
“A demon’s blade befitting a demon,” he said.
“You may yet be a demon,” the monk said, reproachfully. “But I will thank you all the same.”
Katashi faced the monk with a sardonic frown on his face.
“If the Shogun wished to exterminate these demons,” Katashi remarked, “he should have sent an army, not three defenseless monks.”
“Bloodshed only feeds the demons,” the monk said. “You win only a temporary victory at best. This Tengu will return with the new moon, as will any you happen to slay this night. The portal to the realm of the Oni must be closed with an exorcism, otherwise neither the mountains nor the valley nor the villages will know peace.”
“When I kill someone,” Katashi said, “he remains dead.”
“A human, perhaps,” the monk said, “and perhaps not even then. Perhaps you have peopled this mountain yourself with the deaths you have sown upon previous battlefields. Perhaps you have a burden in all of these ill-begotten creatures and their insatiable bloodlust.”
It was Katashi’s turn to feel perturbation, yet it passed quickly. He had no time or patience for emotions that might disadvantage him on the battlefield. The monk continued up the mountain. Katashi followed.
It was a long hike, and the moon guided them. As the night progressed the howling of the mountain increased. It was a faraway whisper at first, but soon became as a wind just on the other side of the trees. The monk spoke suddenly.
“If you do not commit yourself to the Eightfold Path you will never reach Satori, but will continue in the cursed cycle of reincarnation.”
“It matters little to me,” Katashi said. “I do not care to be part of some divine realm. Does the tiger wish to be declawed and defanged? How happy could such a pathetic creature be?”
“If you persist in violence you may indeed become an Oni.”
Katashi shrugged. “I am worse than an Oni, little monk. Most men are. For we are shameful hypocrites. At least the Oni do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: blood-drinkers. They eat men without justifying it. They do not say, ‘I kill for my master,’ or ‘I wage war for the sake of peace.’ They kill and they enjoy it and they do not taint their tongues with falsehoods to ease their conscience.”
“And you enjoy killing?” the monk said.
“I enjoy surviving,” Katashi said. “And you must kill to survive.”
“It seems you enjoy little,” the monk said, “not living, and maybe not even surviving.” Katashi scoffed.
“And that is the hypocrisy of monks. They claim to live for peace and to avoid bloodshed, but all the while they must employ warriors to kill their foes on their behalf. Monks do not live more peacefully. They simply burden needful violence upon others, like a lord sending his peasants to the paddies to harvest and store the rice.”
The monk was thoughtful for a long moment, and then sighed. “You are not wrong,” he said. “The burdens of this world are often unloaded upon others. And we monks are as guilty.” He took a deep breath. “And, so, if you wish to leave my service, please leave. I will not burden you with the karma entailed in this task.”
“I am not in your service,” Katashi growled. “I am merely sharing the path for a time. I seek entertainment. Nothing else. Well, no, that is not true.” His hand went to the handle of his new sword. “This new blade pleases me. For that, I suppose I am grateful to you.”
“I would rather have died than led you to further bloodshed,” the monk said solemnly.
Katashi snorted. “How did such a one as you come to be a monk? Did the Buddha come to you in a dream?”
“How did you become a warrior?” the monk countered. “Did Hachiman put a sword in your hand and a blood-thirst in your belly?”
“I kill men,” Katashi said. “It is what I am good at, so I do it.”
“What of women and children?” the monk asked.
Katashi took the monk by the arm, halting them both. He looked at the monk directly, and in his gaze was a hardness that cut quick and sharp like a blade.
“If a youth dares to fight me, then he is a man in his own estimation, and I would not dishonor him by refusing his challenge. And I never harm women. Ever.” Katashi scowled. “You did not answer my question. How is it that you became a monk?”
The young monk said nothing. He put a finger to his lips, hushing any talk. In the howling wind of the mountains there was a strange sound of chattering—a creeping, crawling, chattering among the trees. Katashi peered at the shadow-swollen trees. Things uncoiled there; things with sharp claws and gnashing pincers and long segmented bodies.
Katashi drew his black blade as the long-bodied creatures came billowing through the darkness on their many legs. The nearest creature lunged for the monk, but the monk ensnared its pincer-snapping head with his prayer beads. With a quick prayer the beads glowed with white fire, radiating energy as the chattering centipede blazed and burned away to ash.
“Namu Amida Butsu,” the monk said.
The other two demons undulated toward Katashi like long ribbons, their movements interweaving with one another so as to confuse and dismay their intended prey. But Katashi’s senses were sharp, splitting the shadows with which the demons concealed themselves. One lunged, and then the other, and with two slashes Katashi had split the giant centipedes in two, their bisected bodies writhing wildly upon the ground. In two subsequent motions he plunged his blade into one head and then the other, swiftly silencing their chattering once and for all.
The monk and the ronin continued up the mountain path.
“You did not answer my question,” Katashi said. “How did you come to be a monk? Was it in search of respite from agonies? Or was it to seek agonies through self-denial?”
“Life is hard and full of agonies,” the monk said. “That is the purpose of Buddha. To offer respite and refuge from the sorrows of Life.”
“What do you know of sorrows?” Katashi demanded. “Monks live apart. They are chosen as children, raised in monasteries, provided protection by the same warriors whose means of life they shun.”
“I was not always a monk,” the young monk said. “I was, for the longest time, an orphan.”
“Born from a bamboo stalk?” the ronin mocked.
“My father was a fisherman,” the monk said. “My family lived in a small fishing village on the coast. I do not remember my parents and siblings very well. They were drowned in a tsunami. I was found afterward, clinging to a bundle of bamboo that floated in the aftermath. I was found by a kabuki group, of all things. They made jokes about it, saying I floated into the Floating World. From then on I grew up in the kabuki theater. I learned how to perform and how to play music on the shamisen. I became a very popular kagema. I performed in the dress of a woman, and even played Amaterasu, and dared to think I could shine as brightly as the sun. Men hungered for me, and paid for me. They used me as they would a woman, and wealthy women paid for me as well, and I made money for my kabuki group. But I hated it. My life was suffering.”
“And so your precious Buddha saved you? Or did he visit you in the night? I have heard that monks enjoy kabuki, too, and hold private audiences when the world is silent except for the chirping of lonely crickets. They enjoy kagema as well.”
The young monk ignored him.
“I shuddered at the touch of men and women both. I wanted to run away, but felt guilt and shame at the thought of selfish flight. The kabuki players had rescued me as a child. I felt that I owed them my life.”
Something in Katashi’s posture shifted. It was not so rigid, even if it was as flint-to-flame ready.
“Why did you leave?” Katashi asked, his voice neither soft nor harsh.
“I was violently abused by one man. When I attempted to tell the others they told me to keep silent about it. The man was very wealthy, and was a noble. Thereafter I cut my hair and fled to the monastery. The monks refused to take me at first, knowing who I was. You are correct, ronin; the kabuki actors are paid to visit monks— some monks, but not all—and I had been very popular among the Zen masters. They hated the shame of my presence on their holy grounds, but I persisted. I invoked the sayings of the Buddha, and the Sutras I had learned while in the kabuki theater. Still, they refused me.”
Katashi may have sighed, or hissed. Something in his bearing shifted. The monk continued.
“Then one night I met an old monk while wandering the woods. He told me to speak his name to the monks. His name was Eiji. I spoke his name the next morning and the monks were astonished. They asked me where I had heard his name. I explained that I had learned the name of the man from the man himself. They immediately accepted me. Eiji, they said, had been the great exorcist in the monastery. He was respected even by the Shinto priestess of a local village for his ability to exorcize malevolent entities.”
“And now you exorcize demons,” Katashi said. “Where is this Shinto priestess? Could she not aid you in your quest to cleanse these mountains?”
The monk inhaled and exhaled. “She was slain but a week ago by an assault of demons in her village. Many holy men and women have been slain lately while trying to protect their villages against the demons.”
Katashi thought about all of the many nights he had spent in the woods, a mere raven’s flight distance, from this mountain. No mischief befell him. No malevolent spirits had stalked and attacked him. Why?
“What hope have you in standing against the source, then?” Katashi asked the monk. “It seems as foolish as a fish trying to hold back the river.”
“It may be foolishness,” the monk said. “But I refuse to stand aside and let more people die from inaction. The Shogun is too concerned with destroying the warlords plotting against him to concern himself with demons. And so long as men wage war the demons shall invade and feast and prosper in our lands.” The monk paused, turning to look Katashi in the eye. “So…you now know this to be a doomed endeavor. Do you wish to continue shadowing me?”
Katashi did not hesitate. “I am bored of stealing from peasants and holy men. I wish for more excitement, and more blades against which to test my mettle. Folly invites much diversion.”
They continued up the mountainside. Summer’s blooming abundance cluttered all around them. The slivers of moonlight led them onward and upward. The night was warm and balmy, the mountain forests thick with foliage and mystery. Long abandoned huts reared here and there, the dilapidated structures sinking into their own bamboo bones and haunted by unnatural fires in their dark depths. A temple, too, sat behind a torii gate. Eyes peered from within its cobwebbed shadows. Whatever kami were worshiped there had long given the temple over to more malignant entities.
“A man’s soul is like a woodblock,” the monk said. “Each life we live, reincarnated, is a print from that woodblock.”
“Another lecture, is it?” Katashi remarked.
“The Buddha helps us cut away the details,” the monk said, “removing the jutting imperfections used to stain the page until all that remains is a flat, smooth expanse until a pure whiteness remains, the impurities of this world slipping off of us, untouched by the ink.”
“I am rather fond of woodblock prints,” Katashi said. “Especially those of Mt. Fuji. Why should we not enjoy what imprints our lives and makes us who we are? Why would anyone not stain the page with the beauty of this world?”
“Why are you a ronin?” the monk countered. Before Katashi could answer, the monk spoke again. “Because this world is transient and fleeting. It is fickle. One day you have a place with a master, and then next day you are adrift after a great calamity. Not even the peaceful trees are spared. The seasons are restless and wait for no man, however painful the cold Winter winds are on his old bones.”
“Even so,” Katashi said, “I love this world. It has beauty. It has strength. Perhaps I will never reach Satori, but what of it? I would rather stay earthbound with the changing of the seasons swirling around me than elevate to a realm of sheer consciousness. The world is a fickle mistress, but she remains beautiful, whether a maiden or mother or old crone.”
The monk was silent for a long time. He stared at the beads entwining his hand. At length, he spoke.
“And that pouch you clutch within your armor? What is the meaning of it?”
Katashi bristled. “There are secrets dear to a man, and he would rather die than reveal them to anyone. Even to your precious Buddha.”
The silence between them opened around them and they leaned into it as they ascended. It did not comfort them, but it did not provoke them either, covering the soreness between them like a scar. Distantly they heard the howling of the mountain’s summit.
They continued to ascend the high path up the mountain.
There was a waterfall somewhere. Its rushing music swelled as they neared it. The land beneath their feet leveled for a time, and the forests opened wide, falling away to let the moonlight play vastly in the mist. Neither the ronin or the monk spoke. They heard the strumming of a koto mingled in with the waterfall’s cascade. Approaching, they saw the heavy breath of the crystalline cataract aglow with moonlight, and, within that heavy breath, the large figure of someone sitting upon a rock in the pool.
“It is a demon,” the monk whispered. “It will not let us pass.”
“We shall see,” Katashi said. “Wait here.” He approached the waterfall.
Strangely, the nearer he came to the waterfall, the less he heard of it, and the more the beautifully sad music of the koto echoed in his ears. At length, the music continued, but the figure leapt from the rock. Still shrouded in mist and shadow, it walked slowly forward. It grew taller as it approached, cradling the large koto in its long arms and still somehow plucking at the strings to haunt the mountains with its melody. Such long, unfolding arms. Such long, unfolding fingers.
A figure emerged at last, tall and imposing, her kimono black and her long hair white. Her face was like a grotesque Noh mask, only it was not carved of wood to frighten children. The sad, fang-cluttered smile was her own as well, as were the horns upon her crown and the glowing red eyes. Even now her long, blood-stained claws plucked and struck at the strings of the koto. She was a kijo: a mountain ogress.
Somewhere behind him Katashi heard the monk muttering incantations. The ronin hushed him with a wave of his hand. He then walked toward the tall creature, listening to her song as if it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. When they came face to face he did not flinch, nor did he unsheathe his sword. Instead, he unsheathed himself, casting his sword, armor and the robe beneath aside. He stood boldly naked in the phantom-spun moonlight. The only things he wore were his scars and the pouch whose string hung from his neck, its singular content being the scale of the moon carp.
The kijo stared at Katashi, her red eyes glowing with hunger. She ceased playing her song and set down the koto. The koto was as long as Katashi was tall. Its board was made of bones and its strings made of sinews and tendons. The ogress gazed at him for a long moment, eyeing him up and down, her grotesque face full of hunger, and sadness.
The ogress raised a taloned hand high above her horned head. Katashi awaited its fell plunge, but when it plunged even he was startled by its boldness. Her hand went to the fold of her black kimono and peeled it away from her tall, angular body. She stood before him as naked as he dared stand before her, her breasts pendulous and her womanhood glistening. He did not flee, but stood fast before her as her long, bony arms embraced him. He embraced her in turn, and she pressed her fetid mouth against his own, tasting of blood and death; a familiar kiss he had tasted many times on the battlefield; a taste that thrilled and repulsed him, enlivening him and sickening him with that katana blade sharpness of contrast. Her fangs cut his lips sweetly.
Katashi sucked at her breasts while she pressed herself atop him vigorously. She kissed him many times, and with each kiss he recalled a blade or arrow or spear that kissed his skin, leaving a scar. He no longer felt repulsed, nor even thrilled. This was familiar; this was his life written in the characters of kisses and scars and terrors, all tracing the imminence of death. Even her grotesque face did not repulse him, nor was it truly ugly after a time. His whole life had been ugly and bloody, soaking battlefield after battlefield; enough blood to drown a dragon. But when the Tanaka clan fell, he saw the fruits of his efforts wither and decay on the shorn vine.
The monk ventured further up the mountain path, moving slowly beneath the cover of the trees. A wide berth he gave to the two lovers. To him it seemed their lovemaking was both sacrilegious and beautiful—grotesque and sincere. He was reminded of the many nights he had pleased men and women after his troupe’s kabuki plays. He never enjoyed any of these encounters, save one. And the pleasure of that encounter scared him, even now.
There had been an older woman that had often attended his plays. He had seen her in the audience, distinguished by her gaze, for she was transfixed upon him, her eyes as bright and hot as two toro lanterns. She paid only once for him, and even then seemed shy and embarrassed as he disrobed before her. Yet, once she had begun to touch him her passion kindled and she was as lively and ferocious as any woman half her age. But there was a tenderness to her, also, and genuine love in her lovemaking. She sought to please him as much as to enjoy him, and he found that he was genuinely affected by her care. Afterwards, when the sakura blossoms had been shaken fully from her desires, she lay within his arms, her forehead against his chest. She sang a song—an old folk song—and sounded almost as a child. The lines beneath her dark eyes had smoothed and she looked fresh and young though she was old enough to be his mother.
Even now her song haunted him.
“Cherry blossoms take flight
the stars of Obon night
like lovers’ eyes
awake in bed, though soon
to drift asleep
beneath the lantern moon
where dreams will keep
living on—ever on
after we part
at the coming of dawn
and the dimming of my heart.”
The monk came to the cresting crown of the mountain. A pagoda gleamed white in the moonlight, towering like a mountain unto itself. It was made of human bones. Perched atop its many eaves were Tengu, their black crow wings arched behind their backs. They cackled and cawed riotously. Down below, and standing on the pagoda’s various stories, were Yokai and Tengu. Worse of all, there were Oni. They were large, grim-faced ogres with sharp teeth and long claws. The monk knew that he had now come to the place of evil infection in the mountains and would need to exorcize the place of infection.
Looking about, he found a circle of oaks. There was a natural power here. He could sense it. It was powerful with benevolent kami. They would lend him their aid. He readied his incense burner, his kindling, his prayer beads, the Lotus Sutra, and his nerves. He began the purification ritual, chanting and rolling his prayer beads in amongst the incense smoke.
The monk went unnoticed for a time. Yet, he was soon spotted by a Tengu flitting about the skeletal pagoda. The Tengu squawked like a crow in alarm, pointing to the circle of oaks. Soon the Oni and other Yokai descended from the pagoda. They came in a languid tide at first, and then rushed on like a wave. The monk knew, then, that he had no time to complete the ritual. He knew he would soon die.
And then Katashi arrived, crashing into the beastly creatures like a divine wind. He drew his blade and slew a handful of the twisted creatures without ever clashing swords. He moved like water through a sieve, seemingly untouched by the horde. But the horde was numerous and boasted many formidable foes. His initial attack was effective, but the element of surprise was gone. The larger Oni gathered around him, even as the smaller Yokai attempted to slip past him only to be cut down. The Oni grinned and could have easily overpowered him, yet their pride did not allow it. One by one they faced him, and one by one he tested the black blade on their thick hide and horns and heads.
The moon reddened, like a basin of blood. All that was touched by its light was stained with a crimson glow. The mountains seemed drowned in blood. A strange castle could be seen in the night sky. It, too, was made of bones and sat in a lake of blood.
Katashi’s black blade dripped blood, and his ferocity was whetted by his bloodlust. He struck at the Oni and Tengu with such power that it forestalled them, even pressed them back. But Katashi could not truly defeat them, and soon suffered injuries. Slashes and lacerations bled him; the trenchant pains of war staggered him and belabored his breath. He felt so alive, though, and determined. He exulted in the battle.
But then the demons began to mock the ronin. They called to him by his name.
“I remember you, Katashi!” a two-headed Oni said. “You slew my brother and I upon the field! We did not expect to see you here!”
“Did I slay your courage as well as your bodies?” Katashi said. “Why did you never seek me when I was so close to you?”
“The Oni value your contributions to their armies!” the two-headed Oni said, grinning his canine fangs. “You have been a faithful servant of blood and carnage!”
As before, Katashi cut down the two brothers, though now he was more shaken than when he had dealt them their first deaths. For the first time in his life he paled and trembled. Another demon sprang forward: a one-eyed giant with a spear and gnashing fangs. Katashi tightened his hold on his sword, raising it upright beside his head. The blood oozed down the black blade. It was red like human blood; like the countless crimson ponds Katashi had spilled upon countless battlefields.
“Katashi!” the giant yelled in joy through his fangs. He laughed a deep, bellowing guffaw that shook the heavens. “So many warriors and generals!” The giant gestured to the expanse of demons. “And all because of you, Katashi! You have made the demon world strong! So strong! So numerous! So unstoppable!”
“I will cut you all down again!” Katashi vowed.
The giant laughed. “Cut me down and I will return! I return every night, Katashi! Every night since that night beneath the sakura tree! Remember? Remember me? The one whom they called the Spear-Tongued Giant? You challenged me for the honor of being Lord Tanaka’s personal guard! You slew me without mercy, though the duel was meant to be bloodless.”
“You drew blood first!” Katashi roared, slicing at the giant with his sword.
The giant deflected the strikes. “True! If only I drew enough to kill you! Then, perhaps, I would have been the one peopling the demon realm and be esteemed among the legion! But you won, running your sword through my eye and killing me!”
The giant laughed again, seemingly as joyful of his fate as if he had won the duel.
Katashi circled the giant. “I will run you through your other eye, fool!”
The giant swung his club and Katashi rolled beneath the knotted wood, rising to his feet with a slash of his sword splitting the giant’s eye. The giant roared, his bellowing voice staggering into lunatic laughter as he clutched his ruined eye.
“Katashi!!!” he laughed. “You have not changed!”
The giant swung his club blindly, his muscular arms whirling in a frenzy. Katashi retreated discreetly while the giant’s blind attacks struck the other Oni rushing past him to confront the intruders. Small and large Oni were flung away, broken and crushed by the giant’s club. The horde did not baulk, but laughed as if the carnage was the greatest merriment to be had. Eventually a Tengu swooped down and beheaded the giant with his blade, if only to cease his flailing, and the blinded giant’s head fell to the mist-glimmering grass, still laughing.
“I will be back, Katashi!” he vowed. “Upon the next moon I will eat your eyes and drink your blood and welcome you among your true brethren for all eternity!”
The Tengu that had slain the giant now flew toward Katashi. Katashi raised his crimson-cloyed blade with one hand. With the other hand he stealthily drew his tanto blade from its concealed sheath. As the Tengu swooped, Katashi threw his tanto, piercing the crow-demon’s chest. The creature collapsed to the ground, barreling over the smaller Yokai below in a tangle of limbs and feathers. Stepping through this cobbled road of mangled bodies was a horned Oni with red skin and a large scythe. He seemed in a good mood.
“What are you trying to be now, Katashi?” the Oni said. “A nio? Laughable! And where is your fellow guardian?” The Oni looked past Katashi, seeing the monk in the woods. “Ah! A monk? To think you would ally yourself with a monk! I will sully his soul with the filth of his own flesh!”
The Oni dashed toward the trees, his scythe raised for a bloody harvest. Katashi dashed after the Oni, slashing the demon’s leg. It was a feint, however, and the demon spun about, his scythe seeking Katashi’s neck. Katashi twisted sideways, throwing his left arm up against the crescent blade. The blade drank deeply and Katashi nearly fell. Instead, he rallied himself through the blinding pain with a flaming fury and swung his black blade with his one good arm, beheading the Oni at a single stroke.
The Oni’s body fell, and beside it Katashi sagged to one knee, clutching his sword. The wounded arm hung limply, bleeding from the shredded socket. He was pale and a clammy sweat drenched his forehead. His eyes blurred in and out of focus and he felt drowsy; so tired that he should sleep forever.
The horde of Oni gathered around. They did not rush. They pleased themselves by mocking the ronin and his . Their taunts roused Katashi. He glanced back at the monk, his figure wreathed in white fire as he continued his chants. In among the white fire he saw other figures: small and large, strangely shaped; some humanoid, others not nearly so. These figures clustered around the monk protectively, driving back the smaller Yokai that had slipped past Katashi. He realized, after a moment, that they were kami. Nature spirits. It was then, at this realization—when he knew that Nature itself was aspiring to protect the Buddhist monk—that Katashi could not surrender. If the land of Nihon would aid the monk, then Katashi felt that the monk was worthy of Katashi’s service, even if the Buddha wasn’t.
Grimacing, Katashi wobbled as he righted himself up to his feet.
“I will rest in my death,” he told himself. “But for now…I must test my blade.”
The exorcism continued in earnest, and the battle continued in desperation. The floating castle began to fade, as did the howling of the demonic winds. The crimson moon waned, bleeding out until it was pink, and then dull white. Katashi bled out, too, and paled as he weakened. Still did he swing his blade against the horde, even as he fell to his knees again and again. Blood flowed from one eye, and blood clouded the other eye. His whole being was fury and pain.
The Oni and Tengu realized what the whitening of the moon meant. They fled in fear, as if from the chittering of a hungry Shinchu. It was too late for them. The castle faded from the sky and the pagoda faded from the mountaintop. With the latter faded the cursed creatures that had inhabited its towering stories and eaves. Soon all that remained was the mountain, the moon, the monk, and a dying man. The young monk hurried to his side.
“I will perform the rites,” the monk said, kneeling beside Katashi. “You have served the Buddha well and should be rewarded.”
“I served…Nihon…” the ronin said. A burst of blood in his throat shook him. Dropping his sword, he withdrew the pouch beneath his shattered breastplate. Out of it he took the white koi scale and held it up to look at it with his remaining eye.
“Your secret,” the monk said, softly.
“Yes,” he said. “The joy of my life…a smiling face…reflected in the moon pond…” He coughed up more blood, his breathing labored. His face was white and his lips red, like a kabuki actor. “Her smile…she loved the koi…”
“She was your lover,” the monk said.
“And my master’s concubine,” Katashi said, his voice slowing. “She…loved the moon pond…the koi…she said…she was like the koi fish…gave me…gave me this porcelain scale from…her hairpin…”
“She cared for you very much,” the monk said.
“Yes…she would…play the koto for me…sometimes…before we made love…” His bloody brow furrowed with pain. “During the invasion…she killed the lord of the Tanaka clan…herself…and fled to the woods… I do not know…what happened to her…”
“I will pray that both of you are united in your next lives,” the monk said.
“I do not…wish for much,” Katashi said, grimacing as a laceration in his gut broke and bled freely. “Just…just a peaceful life…of isolation…silence…without violence… without…wrath…and with the…beauty of the seasons…all around…such as when…when I told her…she was my moon…”
Katashi’s final breath faded away. The monk prayed over the ronin, repeating the Lotus Sutra to bless his passing. When morning came, so, too, did the sun, and the mountain was bathed in purifying light. The Oni and Yokai were gone. The kami rejoiced in their silent, subtle way. The monk purified Katashi and buried him, marking his grave with a stone. He then descended the mountain path.
Where the monk passed he met with no demon or ghost. The mountain had been completely cleansed. When he came to the waterfall and its pool he did not see the kijo anymore. Rather, the place was serene and uninhabited. He glanced at it for a moment, then turned to leave. The gleam of white motion caught his eye and he turned to look at the pool again. Floating in the pool, serene and content, were two pale white kois. They gleamed with a porcelain luster as they floated up. They were so white that the carved edges of their scales were invisible in the sheen along their flanks.
A leaf fell from a maple tree—burning orange like a phoenix’s feather. The monk bowed and then left the kois to their reward.
The windowpane frosted as Alex stared out beyond the backyard and the subdivision, into a field glossy with snow and moonlight. The star-mottled sky was a deep blue, as if the chilly air itself was breathless, and the pale moon was circumscribed sharply, cleanly, with no mist or moisture to blur its dreaming lobe. Alex moved a brontosaurus off the windowsill, fixing his eyes again on the distant hills. The hills were black in the distance, and all else between lay suffused in waxy, wintry starlight. The elms and the oaks to the left of the field were coated in ice, like white coral, and their crystalline branches did not stir. The air itself did not stir, but was inert and lifeless in the frigidity of a frozen February night.
Alex held his breath, squinting at a horizon undulating with hills. Though a uniform blackness, there was one hill among the rest which he knew did not belong. It was a stranger, and an imposter.
Downstairs, Alex’s father was asleep on the couch, a Nature program still playing, the narrator’s soothing voice muffled by the floor. Alex’s mother had gone to bed an hour before. Alex had been shooed to bed an hour before that, yet had not fallen asleep. Instead, he had slipped quietly out of bed to hold vigil as he had for the past three nights.
The distant hill rumbled, and Alex pressed his face against the cold windowpane, his breath fogging the glass. The hill that did not belong was now moving. But his parents did not rouse from sleep, though the house trembled. At first he had thought the movement was a trick of moonlight and his imagination, but as he watched the bristle-backed hill he came to mark its progress in his memory. The tremors had become stronger, too, and the hill larger as it came closer.
The house trembled again, and dogs barked throughout the subdivision in a cascade of agitation. Alex’s father grumbled, rousing sleepily to curse his neighbors for their pets, and then turned up the volume on the television. The Nature narrator spoke louder, now, about bears and hibernation and the need to eat to survive Winter. Alex’s father succumbed once more to his own hibernation.
Alex stared at the bristle-backed hill huddled among the other hills. It seemed larger tonight, and, so, he knew it was closer. He wondered what it wanted, and what it would do when it finally arrived at the subdivision. He watched it for as long as he could, but toward the Witching Hour snow fell heavy and frequent. It was difficult to discern the hills from the night. Alex laid himself down in his bed again. He did not have to watch the hill. He knew it was moving closer. He did not need to see it to know. He could feel the tremors of its approach in the frame of the house.
The next morning was not bright. The heavy snow fell harder and thicker than before, packing the earth in crunchy, sparkling whiteness. The sun was a gauzy apparition behind thick-folded linen. Alex woke up late, having stayed up late for his vigil, and he came down for breakfast only to find lunch waiting for him. It was a weekday, a schoolday and a workday, and he was confused by the fact that his parents did not bother to wake him and that they were, both of them, in their pajamas.
“Snow day?” Alex asked.
His parents did not answer. Their eyes were stuck steadfastly to the television. Alex stood behind the couch, staring at the News anchorwoman on the screen. There were images of a gigantic hole in the earth, edged with the partial remains of houses, buildings, and a few cars here and there.
“A sink hole?” Alex said in alarm.
“Don’t worry, baby,” his mother said. She did not take her eyes from the screen. “It happened farther down the road. New Hope. No one from here was harmed.”
“No one we know, at least,” her husband said.
Alex immediately thought of the hill and the tremors in the night. “It could happen here,” he said.
His mother turned around in the couch and smiled at him. Her smile could not hide the worry in her face. “No one fracks around here, sweetie,” she said. “It won’t happen here.” She looked at her husband. “Right, honey?”
“Sure,” his father said. “Still, it’s crazy. Who would have thought that a sink hole would open up and swallow all of New Hope? It’s a good thing we decided to settle here. We could be the ones in that big pit right now.”
Alex’s mother frowned at Alex’s father, then turned toward Alex again, trying to smile again.
“It won’t happen here,” she repeated.
She stared at the television again as the anchorwoman read the total number of people missing and/or presumed dead. Over ten-thousand people had disappeared without a trace, all in a baffling, blinking instant. No one seemed to have any answers as to how or why.
It did not like the light. Alex was certain of this. When the snowstorm blew over, and the sun came out, the hill was gone. There was no trace of if anywhere. Only a gap remained between the two hills where the imposter formerly resided. This knowledge did not reassure Alex. He knew about nocturnal animals from school, and knew that they were no better or worse than animals that hunted by day, but the hill’s preference for the dark still struck him keenly with dread. His father had often told him not to be afraid of the dark—that there was nothing that could harm him, even at night. But Alex knew about rattlesnakes, and coyotes, and mountain lions. And Alex knew about the black bears that lived in the woods, near the streams, and who slept in the cave system near the hills. Later that night he saw a bear in the field. The bear should have been hibernating, but it was running away.
It looked afraid.
The man in the black robe stood at the end of the long driveway, across the yellowing field where the bales of hay huddled in the shrapnel stalks. The man leaned on his long-handled scythe, his face cowled in shadow. The scythe’s blade gleamed, even in the predawn murk. Billy sat upon the front porch of the farmhouse, squinting his eyes as the flash of the blade leapt out at intervals, watching the man as the man watched his older brother, Thomas. Thomas did not see the robed man as he helped his father with the tractor. Billy could not tell Thomas because his head did not work right, and so his mouth did not work right. Instead, Billy pointed at the man with one hand—the hand that did not hold the toy soldier. Even so, no one paid any mind to Billy, and so they paid no mind to the robed man. At length, the robed man continued down the road. Along the distant hills behind the robed man were trees. The trees were bare and black like charred hands stretched out in vain to protect against the coming sunrise.
Billy did not play with the toy soldier in his hand. He held it gently, reverently, as if it might break at any moment.
“Hey, Duckbill,” Thomas said, ruffling his little brother’s hair as he and his father stepped up onto the porch. “You going to help daddy with the tractor while I’m gone?”
“If he can milk Betty without being kicked he’ll be doin’ good,” their father said. He did not pat his youngest son’s head, but grumpily took hold of the rocking chair and sat down. “But maybe someday he’ll be strong. A lot of them that are weak in the head prove to be strong in the arm. Maybe then he’ll earn his keep.”
Thomas did not sit in the other rocking chair, but stood with his arms folded. “Wish you wouldn’t say that about him. It’ll hurt his feelings.”
Their father shook his head. “He don’t understand anyhow,” he said. “And the truth never hurt nobody. I’ve been tellin’ you the truth for years, Tom, and you grew up big and strong and good. No harm done, all in all.”
In reply, Thomas crouched down beside his little brother. “You’ll learn to talk eventually, Duckbill. I know you will. When I come back you’ll be here to greet me, and you’ll tell me with your own mouth how your daddy’s the sorriest son of a buck there ever was this side of Crabapple County.”
Billy continued to stare at the distant hills, the distant trees, and the coming sunrise. Their father chuckled.
“I may be the sorriest son of a buck in this county,” their father said, “but I feel sorry for the sorriest son of a buck over there. You’ve got a talent with a rifle. I’m sure whoever you’ll have in your sights will be as a clay pigeon still on the flywheel.”
The sun rose and set the trees afire with napalm bombardment. The horizon burned in an apocalyptic inferno. Billy began to sob.
“What’s wrong, Duckbill?” Thomas asked, tenderly. He put a hand on the little boy’s shoulder, but the boy just shook his head.
“That boy ain’t right,” their father said, grimacing. “What’re you cryin’ about, boy? You ain’t got nothin’ to cry about.”
“Lay off the boy,” said their mother. She stood behind the screen-door, her hands on her aproned hips. “Breakfast is ready. Come get you something to eat. All of you.”
Their father shot bolt-up from the rocking chair and went in.
“Come on, Duckbill,” Thomas said. “You’ll feel better once you’ve had something for breakfast.”
Reluctantly, Bill rose from the porch, careful not to drop the toy soldier. His eyes blurred with tears and the glare of the sun. Letting his eyes fall to the hay bales, he saw them anew. There were minced men rolled up and bound together in amongst the straw. He rubbed his eyes clear of the tears, but not the vision.
Billy followed his older brother inside the house.
Sitting at the table, the family said Grace and then began to eat. There were biscuits, sausage, eggs, and gravy on each plate. The tablecloth was checkered red and white. The grandfather clock ticked off seconds, slicing Now from Nevermore one sliver with each swing of its pendulum. The radio was on the kitchen counter, near the dirty pans. It was turned down low, but Billy listened to it intently as he held his idle fork with one hand. The other hand retained its gentle, but firm, grip on the toy soldier. The radio host spoke of the Viet Cong and deadly jungle diseases.
Still, their father spoke casually; easily. Pridefully.
“You’re doin’ a good thing, Tom,” his father said, beaming. “Stoppin’ them Commies is the most important thing right now. It’s either them or us. You’re gonna’ make sure it’s them.”
“I know, daddy,” Thomas said.
“This ain’t goin’ to be another Korea,” his father said resolutely through a mouth full of gravy-laden biscuit. “We just come off the Big War and nobody had the stomach for it. Now, though, you are goin’ to put those Commies in their place. And that place is six feet under. Or head-down in the rice paddies. To hell with ‘em. They don’t deserve a Christian burial.”
Thomas nodded, but said no more. He ate his breakfast in silence.
Billy ate nothing. He stared emptily at his full plate.
“Bill,” his mother said. “You need to eat something. You got a full day ahead of you and you aren’t going to be able to do nothing on an empty stomach.”
“You better eat that food, boy,” his father said, “or I’m takin’ its cost out of your hide.”
Billy pushed the plate toward his brother, his eyes and mouth agape with meaning they could not convey.
“It’s all right, Duckbill,” Thomas said. “I got enough to eat.”
The radio announcer spoke confidently of the military, but his words were gnawed with screaming static.
Gunpowder clouds floated in from the East, darkening the caustic white sky. The winds cut across the heartland like cold metal blades sweeping side to side.
Billy followed his brother and father out to the gate. Opening it, they went through. They said nothing of the blood and ragged skin and meat hanging along the barbed wire fence, or the bodies entangled in the coils. The herd gathered around obediently as the men went to the barn. The old barn had a gambrel roof, like a casket, and overflowed as they approached it. The hay loft brimmed with heaped corpses and entrails and dismembered limbs as they began to pitch hay down to the cows. Billy could say nothing at all. He only moaned a little.
“Jesus, boy,” his father growled. “You ain’t even doin’ nothin’! We’re the ones throwing this hay out.”
They worked at the heaps of hay while the herd eagerly gathered around to eat. Billy watched the dumb beasts chew, their heedless lips splattered with blood. Billy’s eyes itched and brimmed as they always did when he was near hay. The world was blurry, but he could see more than most.
“Daddy, I’ve been thinkin’,” Thomas said as he pitched the hay. “You need to teach Bill how to shoot. Who knows how long this war might last.”
“The boy doesn’t understand nothin’,” his father said. “You honestly think they’d accept him? He’s…half-finished. Course, it’s our fault. We waited too long to have him. And now…well, he’ll be lucky if he can look at a gun without runnin’ off in terror.”
“Daddy, you’re being mean,” Thomas said, halting his pitchfork.
His father halted, too. He stabbed his pitchfork’s teeth into the floor of the barn like a bayonet into bowels, leaning on it and rubbing his lower back with one hand. He affixed his youngest son with a shrewd, merciless stare. “I ain’t bein’ mean. I am bein’ honest.” He turned toward his eldest son. “Don’t you remember how he reacted when I tried to get him to shoot that little ol’ .22? He ran as if the Devil was after him! He’s scared shitless of guns now. I can’t even clean a gun in my own living room without him becoming a blubbering mess.”
“That’s not his fault, daddy,” Thomas said, looking to his little brother with a mixture of sadness and pity.
“I know it,” his father said gruffly. “That’s why I said we should never have tried at our age. And now look at him! Playing with dolls and cryin’ when a gun goes off. It’s not…manly.”
“He’s still a boy,” Thomas said. “He has some growing to do.”
“At his age you were shootin’ ducks, Tom,” his father said. “All on your own with no say-so from me or nobody else.” He smiled with pride. “I remember back then. You were so proud when you brought those ducks in for supper. Your momma already had made some soup, but when I saw what you’d done, I said, ‘To hell with the soup! Let’s have some roasted duck!’” His wrinkles smoothed with youthful joy. “And I’ll be damned if that wasn’t some of the best meat I’ve ever had. And you never ruined anything you shot with a bad aim. You got the Eye for shootin’. I’d wager to say your enemies will call it the Evil Eye before long. Or the Eye of God. Where you aim, Death follows. Those slant-eyes will be like fish in a barrel. They won’t know what hit ‘em.”
They continued pitching the hay as the clouds rolled in.
Billy wandered away, unnoticed. He looked out across the yellowing fields that undulated heavenward, the bales silent amongst the splintered stalks. He was startled at the roar of the tractor engine. The tractor rolled out of the shed, his father a shadowy outline atop it. Billy watched the bold, black tires of the machine deploying forward to the day’s work, its ridged tires cutting trenches in the fallow earth.
Billy walked farther away. He came to the tobacco barn where the stalks hung from the crossbeams. Bodies hung there, too. He walked inside and saw the man in the black robe, sharpening his sickle. Billy stared at him. He could not see the man’s face beneath his hood. The whetstone slid slickly across the cold white crescent blade in a pendulous motion. The sibilance struck something primal in Billy’s spine, begging flight. But he did not flee. He stood and stared at the man. The man looked up, but his hand never stopped swiping the whetstone across the long blade. Its curvature reminded Billy of a raven’s beak. Bill began to cry.
‘Silence,’ the man said, his voice sharper than the blade he whetted. ‘You have chores to do. As do I.’
Bill ran away from the tobacco barn, catching up to Thomas in the field. He hugged him around his leg.
“Whoa, Duckbill,” Thomas said, almost falling over. He looked down at the trembling boy that clutched at his thigh. “Come on, now. You don’t need to get upset over it. I’ll miss you, too, but I’ll be coming back. Don’t you worry none.”
Billy continued to weep, shaking his head as the tears came.
They drove the shaky, sputtering old truck to the bus stop and waited with the other families for the military bus to come to pick up the young men assembled there. There were lots of kisses and handshakes, hugs and shoulder pats. There was bravado, and not just from the young men. Fathers and brothers and uncles spoke with grinning complacency.
“Give ‘em hell, boys.”
“Shoot to kill.”
“Kick their asses so hard you knock their slant-eyes straight!”
While the others talked and boasted and bragged on their sons, Billy stared at Thomas through tears. Thomas was tall, like his father, only Time had not whittled him thin yet, and his shoulders were broad, his chest burley, his arms muscled from tools and chores. His smile was easy and kind. He had the loudest laugh, spreading seeds of laughter all around him. He was the gentlest and the strongest young man among all those gathered from every end of the county.
But Billy knew that none of that mattered to the man in the black robe as he, too, waited by the bus stop, leaning patiently on his scythe.
“Be good while I’m gone, Duckbill,” Thomas said. “Grow bigger and stronger than me, okay? Momma and daddy are going to need your help.”
Billy tried to speak, but, as always, the words did not come.
When Billy and his mother and father arrived home, without Thomas, Billy stared out toward the East where the dark clouds flashed here and there with lightning.
“Get on inside, boy,” his father said. “And go to bed early. Don’t stay up all night playin’ with toys. Tomorrow I’m goin’ to have to show you how to milk the cows. You’re goin’ to be busy for the Winter.”
Billy went upstairs, but did not go into his own room. Instead, he carried the toy soldier into Thomas’s room. The little boy sat on Thomas’s bed, looking out through Thomas’s window. Beyond the distant fields, toward the East, a storm was readying its front-line offensive. Billy opened the window and a warm breeze blew in, as if from some other part of the world that was warmer and moister. It felt like a monsoon was coming to the heartland of America.
The moon was bloated with moribund light as Phoebe walked along the desolate fields. Jagged stalks gleamed with the first frost of the year, crunching beneath Phoebe’s boots. Her shadow walked beside her, stretching out long and thin, as if mocking her short height with the taller figure she wished she possessed. Phoebe was a vain creature, especially for her thirteen years of life, and while she would have rather worn more ladylike shoes when out and about, even she bowed to the necessity of muck boots when in search of Devil’s Fen.
“Perfectly white teeth,” Phoebe said to herself. “Immaculate teeth. The best teeth in the whole county. And handsome blue eyes.”
The fields curved upward upon the hilly countryside, as if swelling like the seas at the beck of the moon and arching slowly like a groggy cat upon waking. The slow rise and fall of the slopes beneath Phoebe’s boots mirrored her breath. She scarcely trusted her own breath in the unsettling silence of that hour, for it rose phantasmally before her in the Autumn chill. She could see her immediate surroundings well enough beneath the moon, but the distant trees were black fringes from which wolves, or worse, might come bounding swiftly to catch her unawares.
This was a pilgrimage, she told herself; a pilgrimage for the sake of Love. She would not be deterred, come dragon or demon or damnation. The hag had promised Phoebe that she would have her wish fulfilled, and yet Phoebe felt misgivings amounting all around her like a pack of snarling fangs.
“Perfect teeth,” she said to herself. “Like pearls. And always grinning; always so handsome. Handsome beneath his handsome mustache and handsome blue eyes.”
The hilly fields gradually sloped downward, away from the moon. Yet, the moon illuminated the receding earth brightly, as if its glow bled and pooled here in this vast valley that deepened and drained at last toward the peat-heaped lowland known as Devil’s Fen.
“Perfect teeth,” Phoebe said, “and our children will have perfect teeth, too. And beautifully black hair. Handsome chin. And the bluest eyes.”
It was good that Phoebe wore her muck boots. Devil’s Fen was choked with water and mud, the only visible earth carpeted in moss that was so saturated that it held nothing as the cold moonlight glittered off of the scab-pocked mirror of water. Rushes and sedges grew everywhere in wilted clusters, and here and there lonely willow trees hung their heads in sorrow. From all of these did Phoebe set about gathering up the materials she would need. She had brought twine, and she uprooted rushes and reeds, cut them with a bone-knife the hag had given her, and sawed off withy from the mournful branches of the willows, stacking them all together and binding them in twine. The moon seemed to watch Phoebe as she worked among the shallow pools of festering plants. Whether it looked on in pleasure or abhorrence, Phoebe could not say. She was not given to such fanciful thoughts. She cared only for the task at hand and how it would win her the man she most desired.
And it was a man that the thirteen-year old most desired. William Clements was twenty and two and the most handsome of all the men in the county. He was brawny and broad-shouldered, had a full crown of dark black hair and bright blue eyes. Moreover, while all of these things recommended him in the admiration of the women, it was his teeth that truly shined as an endorsement of his qualities. A man with such fine teeth was a man to covet, and all the women coveted him, including Phoebe, despite her young age. Unfortunately for the women in Wischmeier county, William Clements’s blue eyes only ever followed the weaver’s daughter, Marianne Mayswell. Phoebe loathed Marianne. Marianne was fair and milky-figured, made graceful by both a healthy living and the primacy of her seventeen years of age. Though she would have never admitted it—even to herself—Phoebe could not compete with Marianne, either by figure or by feature, and despite being the daughter of the mayor, Phoebe could not induce William Clements’s fondness with either her promise of wealth or of beauty. She had tried, of course. Phoebe had her father buy several dresses and bits of jewelry with which to bedew herself as a rosebud in a golden dawn. And yet, at her rising, William only turned his head ever toward that humming afternoon sunshine that was Marianne Mayswell.
And so Phoebe had gone to the hag, and the hag had sent Phoebe here, to Devil’s Fen.
“Teeth so white and spotless,” she said to herself. “Cleaner than moonlight. Brighter than the sun.”
Her boots splashed up a puddle of mud, sullying her new dress. She did not care. It was just another dress that had failed to garner the admiration and affection she envied in Marianne. The latter could have worn a potato sack and outshone Phoebe’s most regal raiment.
Whereas Marianne sewed all of her own clothes, Phoebe received her clothes from the big cities in the Northeast, her father bringing them back with him as gifts whenever his enterprise occasioned his presence in Baltimore or New York. Her father owned a lumber mill, and was the richest man in all of Wischmeier County. He employed most of the men who did not own their own lands with which to prosper. This was also why he was the mayor, for no one dared to challenge him and his resources, nor to cross him, or question him in things concerning the town. He held power nigh absolute. The only exceptions for the mayor’s power were the matters governing the romantic hearts in Wischmeier County and, of course, the Fall Festival.
The Fall Festival was held every year, during the Harvest Moon or thereabouts. Nearly participated in the Festival. It was the catharsis of a year of hard labor, and a consolation for the bitter Winter to come. There was apple cider, and moonshine, and dancing, and storytelling. There were many contests, too, and each contest rewarded its winner with an assortment of prizes. Naturally, Phoebe had never stooped to compete in any of the contests, deeming them beneath her. Yet, the hag had foretold that Phoebe would only win her husband by fabricating her own scarecrow in the Festival’s contest.
The hag said:
“With the rush and the reed,
with both withy and need,
in the dark Devil’s Fen
will you thereby know then
your fateful groom’s grin—
most unique among men.”
Phoebe might have dismissed this prophecy as the ravings of an old crone with more cats than sense, but the more she thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. Marianne always won the scarecrow contest, year after year, for she was the best weaver and seamstress in town. Phoebe often overheard, with resentment, the men and women who spoke so fondly of Marianne’s talents. But none spoke more fondly of her scarecrows than did William Clements.
And it was this latter fact that had convinced Phoebe to take up the hag’s words in earnest. Even if Phoebe did not win William’s heart, she would at least attempt to win the scarecrow contest. She must conquer Marianne by some measure, at the least.
Phoebe stomped about the glittering waters of Devil’s Fen, gathering the materials she would need. It was a chilly night, yet the work brought a heated flush to her young face. It was as much heat of temper as of labor, for she had never worked so hard in her life, and it miffed her greatly.
Phoebe had gathered enough for the scarecrow’s body, but she was unsure what to do for the head. The hag had told her that Phoebe would know what to use to cap the fellow off when she saw it, but so far Phoebe had seen nothing that snared her attentions. Leaving her pile of materials on a mossy embankment, Phoebe dared to trudge deeper into the Fen. She walked for some time, aimless in the moonlit waters except where some preternatural instinct prevailed, and came to the heart of the fen. The moon’s reflection shivered and dissolved upon the wavelets of the fen as she halted. There, in front of her, crouching upon a peculiar stone in the center of the fen, was a fat bullfrog. It was the fattest bullfrog Phoebe had ever seen, its broad green and yellow mouth like a wry smile. Phoebe felt a keen jolt in her bones. This was the missing material she needed for her scarecrow. There was no doubt, even if there was apprehension. She expected the frog to leap away as she reached for it, but it only squatted there, surrendering to her outstretched hands. Normally, she hated frogs, and toads, and all such things squishy and slimy and given to the muck and mud. But Phoebe was so assured now that she would have her heart’s desire that she did not mind the bloated heft of the bullfrog’s flesh as it bulged between her cradling hands. She carried it back to her stack of rushes and reeds and withy with a confident, determined air.
Her materials gathered, Phoebe set to work by moonlight. How long she worked, she did not know. Hours upon hours seemed to pass, and yet the moon never descended a single hair’s breadth. Had she not been so fixated on her creation, she might have noticed such unnatural spans of unmarked time, but her heart and soul were consumed by the task, and the seductive dream wrought therefrom.
As for the frog—to be plopped atop as the scarecrow’s head—the hag had given Phoebe a pot of foul-smelling muck. Phoebe knew not what the muck was, but it was blackish-brown, like molasses, and smelled like sulphur. Taking the strangely docile frog, Phoebe dropped the bachtrachian unceremoniously into the pot. She waited for a time—again, she knew not how long, for she busied herself with other things—and then she dumped the pot out and cleaned the frog with water from the fen. The frog had lost all of its color, becoming a uniform light brown unlike the complexion of William Clements. Moreover, its slimy skin was now leathery, wrinkled, dried and stretched unnaturally until the frog’s mouth was just like a lipless smile. The head now finished, Phoebe impaled it on the scarecrow’s reedy spine and overtopped it with the withy hat. Phoebe then began the process of thickening the scarecrow’s body. Using mud, peat, and moss, she fattened the scarecrow to the dimensions of a man. Using a cattail, she gave him his manhood.
Phoebe had wanted to have one of her father’s servants to weave the scarecrow together for her, but the hag had said that no other could lay hand to the labor without spoiling the spell. By Phoebe’s work alone would the scarecrow exist, or else her groom would not be procured. Thus, Phoebe set about with a plaintive, but ultimately passionate, effort to form the figure of reeds and rushes, to stuff him full of sedges and moss and peat and mud. Over all of this she gave him a shirt she had woven from potato sacks, and britches made of wool, and instead of a straw hat, she had woven a hat made of withy from the willow.
The scarecrow was finished. It was as big and heavy as a man—a man very familiar to Phoebe, in a yearning manner—and so she left it there, in Devil’s Fen, hidden beneath a willow tree as she eagerly awaited the Fall Festival.
Phoebe began the long hike home. It seemed so much farther to walk now, going uphill out of the Fen and the valley and following, once again, the undulations of the hillocky fields. She glanced back, once, at the willow tree where she had placed her scarecrow. Moonlight glowed on the mournful tresses of the willow with a wan wistfulness. As she turned away a phlegmy cackle echoed from somewhere in the darkness of Devil’s Fen. A mallard, Phoebe thought. Nothing more.
Head heavy with exhaustion, and too much sleepless dreaming, Phoebe trudged home like a sleepwalker in want of a bed.
On the day of the Fall Festival, Phoebe requested her father’s housemaid, Millie, to fetch her husband and son and have them all aid Phoebe in transporting the scarecrow from the outskirts of the Fen to the town square where the festival was to be held. The family aided Phoebe with a wheelbarrow and wary glances. As soon as they saw the scarecrow they crossed themselves.
“You superstitious fools,” Phoebe muttered. She added, more loudly, “Hurry! I don’t want to be late for the contest!”
The father and son pushed the wheelbarrow from the Devil’s Fen up through the valley and along the undulating fields, coming to the town square. The Fall Festival was always held on the town square, in among the dogwood trees and the maples. Festoons hung from branch to branch, and large tents stood steepled on tall posts, one after another, each sheltering a contest or auction or certain games for the children. Normally, Phoebe felt nothing but disdain for the cake contests and the games of horseshoes and the poor families juggling pennies to outbid one another for novelties that would be mocked as rubbish in any affluent quarter of a New England town. But she felt excitement to see the commotion made in the bustling crowd as the wheelbarrow was pushed through to the center of the square, its limp passenger nodding with the motion like a drunkard in his cups, or a corpse drawn up out of the bog.
“Is that real, momma?” a little boy wondered aloud, his eyes wide to the whites.
“I don’t know,” the boy’s mother said, drawing him back behind herself with a protective arm. “I reckon not, but I don’t know for certain.”
Such remarks only pleased Phoebe the more. That her creation should give such misapprehension to the country bumpkins proved to her that she had made a formidable scarecrow. A more grotesque specimen was never known.
Fortune smiled upon Phoebe more that day, for the scarecrow contest was to be held in the central pavilion of the town square. This was a large wooden roof, like that belonging to a barn, only hoisted high upon tall, thick posts. The scarecrows from the other competitors had already been erected on stakes for all to see. Marianne Mayswell had her scarecrow front and center, its cloth body assuming a fine semblance to a man in caricature, from his protruding nose to his button eyes and his fine-fingered hands. The weaver’s daughter had outdone herself this year. The scarecrow’s pants were good enough for a child of equal size to wear to church, and the flannel shirt was checkered with perfect little red and black squares. Marianne’s scarecrow was superior to the other scarecrows in every way. Seeing it made Phoebe’s heart sink. It was perfect. But then she turned and looked at her own scarecrow with its all-too-human proportions and its unique fen-furnished materials. Marianne’s was perfected tradition, Phoebe thought, but Phoebe’s was unique. Strangely unique. Bizarre. Otherworldly. At the very least her simulacrum deserved due consideration by the judges, if not outright praise.
“Be careful!” Phoebe admonished her helpers as the father and son struggled under the weight of her scarecrow. “If you break it my father will have you whipped out of town!”
The father and son steadied the scarecrow—even if they trembled now more than ever—and then, having secured it on a large stake, retreated from their mistress, disappearing into the crowd. The crowd swelled forward more closely around Phoebe’s scarecrow to stare in wonder, and abhorrence, at the grotesquery wrought before them.
Yet, while many faces contorted with fear and disgust at the strange, foul-smelling scarecrow, the only face that mattered at all in the crowd was that of William Clements as he stepped forward to gain a better view of the curio in their midst.
“It sure would scare crows away,” William remarked, smiling nervously. “It would scare me away if I saw it standing in a field on a dark night.”
“Not so,” Phoebe said, nearly giggling with giddy joy as she gladly stepped up to meet him and his pearly white teeth. “I know you too well, William. You are too brave and strong to be scared away by anything.”
William’s shoulders, and eyebrows, shrugged. “I have my limits,” he said. “If I’d caught sight of this thing in the field at night I’d kick up enough dirt running away to bury half the county.”
“Then perhaps you wish me to accompany you home,” Phoebe said, radiant with moon-eyed delight, “to protect you from my scarecrow?”
William did not answer her, for Marianne approached, then, and he had eyes now only for the weaver’s daughter.
“She has talent,” Marianne said. “And I like the curious use of reeds and moss. It lends it a different character than the normal sort of field-uncle that the rest of us made. And the use of leather for the head is a clever touch.”
It was generously said, and yet any generosity afforded to Phoebe by the beauteous Marianne smacked of condescension, regardless of how good the intention.
“I don’t have the lay skills of a tradesman,” Phoebe said, sourly, “or a tradeswoman, and so I make do with what my elevated upbringing has given me.”
The acerbity was unmistakable in Phoebe’s voice, yet she was young, and so negligible, especially as William and Marianne turned their attentions toward each other at the exclusion of anyone else. Phoebe saw how their eyes met, and could feel their tidal force. She felt suddenly reduced in size, small, shrinking beneath the taller, prettier girl and the mutual attraction William shared with her. Were Marianne and William to kiss, Phoebe realized, William would not need to stoop to kiss her, the young woman being as tall, whereas if he were to kiss Phoebe he would need to stoop as if picking up a child. And Phoebe was no child, she insisted to herself. She was as much a woman as Marianne, if not more so. Being the daughter of the mayor, she had real power in Springfield. She wore the mature dresses of France and Italy. Phoebe considered herself worldly in her wardrobe and her wiles.
And yet, her mind was arrayed with the thoughts of their first kiss. It would not be romantic. It would not be passionate. It would be absurd. William was a man, and she was a little, foolish girl. She felt tears burning at the edges of her eyes, unnoticed by the crowd gathered around her scarecrow. Before the tears could bubble free, she hurried away from the pavilion to the solitary shade of a maple tree. No one was near her now. She sat on the ground, unmindful of her pretty green dress from France, and cried bitterly. It was some time before she realized that the shade had deepened and darkened from noonday blue to midnight black. Raising her head, she saw that the hag was standing over her, smiling a toothless smile within her faded gray hood.
“Do not cry, my little lamb,” the hag said. “Whatever could be the matter?”
At the sound of pity, Phoebe’s temper flared. She leapt up, clenching her fists at her side. “You liar! You said he would love me if I made that stupid scarecrow!”
“It is but a step along the way,” the hag said, her feigned pity replaced by a sly smile. “Be careful how you foot it, for there are more dangerous paths than fens to wind one’s way through.”
“You say a lot without saying anything at all,” Phoebe retorted. “I trudged through mud and spent all night making that useless scarecrow, and to what end? To what end, you old, ugly hag?!”
“The end has not yet come,” the hag said simply. “You will have exactly what you wish. A husband with handsome blue eyes and immaculate teeth. You must have faith, child, for it will come to pass. You will have a husband with all the things your heart values. You will have his handsome blue eyes and his immaculate teeth.”
“But Marianne has his heart!” Phoebe moaned, feigning a swoon against the tree. She suddenly sprang upright, her green eyes flapping open suddenly and brightening with the fulgurous thunderclap of a thought. “Unless you mean some misfortune will come to pass for Marianne?!” She clapped her hands together excitedly. “Ohhh, is that it?” Still smiling, she feigned sadness. “Oh, but I must not wish too mortal a fate for her. It would be beneath me. She is, after all, only a weaver’s daughter. Better would it be that William were to reflect on his first choice and realize the folly of it, choosing instead to pursue truer taste in one as highly bred as I am.”
“You will have the man with the beautiful blue eyes and the immaculate teeth,” the hag said. “As you said you desired.”
“But when?” Phoebe moaned.
The hag gestured toward the town square with a wart-clustered finger. Phoebe’s eyes followed the gesture, falling again on the pavilion. There was a commotion within the crowd. Many were glancing toward her—at Phoebe—and Phoebe was taken aback.
“What are they gawking at?” Phoebe demanded, outraged.
The hag was gone. She had vanished into thin air. Someone broke away from the pavilion crowd and approached Phoebe. Much to her delight, and agitation, it was William. He strode toward her with his long, loping stride. Coming from among those commonfolk, he was as a proud stallion stepping forth from amongst a herd of dim-witted mules. Phoebe’s stomach whirled with butterflies and she felt as if she was reeling on a merry-go-round. She felt she would have to steady herself by grasping his mustache.
“Phoebe,” he said, “the judges have decided that your scarecrow is the best.”
“Really?” Phoebe said. The excitement in her voice had nought to do with her scarecrow; rather, it was elicited by the impeccable grin on William’s face. “So I won? Me? What a surprise! I am so happy!”
“You should come get your prize,” William said.
“What is it?” Phoebe asked, excited at the thought that it might be a kiss from the young man standing before her.
“A quilt,” William said. “Woven by Marianne’s father, Michael.”
Phoebe’s smile instantly soured. “I do not want a quilt,” she said.
“But it really is a pretty quilt,” William said. “One of the best her father has ever woven.”
“Then let her keep it,” Phoebe said, irritably. “What good can I have from a quilt? I get all of my blankets and sheets from France. They’re softer and better made in France. Because of their more finely bred fingers.”
William’s countenance darkened with what Phoebe knew to be anger. But instead of offering a cross rebuke, he merely turned away from her in silence, walking toward the pavilion. Phoebe watched him go with a feeling of terrible finality all about her and the cosmos. This finality consumed the spheres and made her feel claustrophobic, like a mouse chased deeper and deeper into a narrowing hole by a mouser. Her greatest fear seemed soon to reach fruition.
“William!” she called out, her voice cracking.
He said nothing, nor did he turn to look at her. He merely halted.
“On second thought, I wish to see this quilt,” she said, hurrying forward. “It is, no doubt, as good as any French blanket, if not Oriental silk. The Maywells are very talented people.”
William turned about now, a wary smile returning to his face. “They are, as a matter of fact,” he said. “Not a weaver for four hundred miles that could do better.”
Phoebe’s luck seemed to take a change for the better a little later when Marianne had to escort her elderly father home. He had a wet cough and she, being his only child, wished to see him rectified with a bowl of hot soup and a warm fire. Reluctantly, William said his goodbyes to Marianne, and prepared to leave, himself, from the emptying town square as the gloaming drew its crepuscular fabrics all around. Phoebe, however, had a mind for fatefulness. So, she took the rare opportunity and asked that he take a walk about the town with her. Seeing no harm in it, William agreed, and not only agreed, but carried the quilt that Phoebe had won with her unique scarecrow.
Phoebe and William took several turns about the square. Phoebe spoke much about her father’s businesses, his prosperity, the various things he bought for her, and all of the material comforts which she thought a goodly lure for the man she wished to betroth. After a time, William interrupted her diatribe about the superiority of China to American pewter plates to remark upon her scarecrow.
“It seems your father had some people carry your scarecrow away,” he said, pointing.
Phoebe blinked in confusion, then followed his finger. Beneath the pavilion, the large stake was vacant of its former resident. This baffled Phoebe, for she had made no request for anyone to take possession of her creation, nor to carry it elsewhere. Her father, in fact, did not even know the scarecrow existed, for he had foregone the Fall Festival in favor of a festival of his own, awash with ale. Whichever way the scarecrow had come to vanish, Phoebe did not care. It had served its purpose, and now she was walking and talking with William Clements— alone, in twilight, with no one else eavesdropping upon them; and, truth be told, if someone did so happen to be eavesdropping, all the merrier for Phoebe. Let it spread around Springfield and to the bordering counties. Perhaps the rumor would gain momentum enough to carry this night into a foreseeable day of matrimonial bliss, or at least obligation.
“William,” she said, suddenly halting and facing him. “What are your plans for the future? What are your dreams?”
William’s brow furrowed with thought. “Well, I suppose I would like to own my own farm. Maybe someday I would even own two farms. Three even!” He laughed, and the laugh was full-chested with booming alacrity.
“You should really think about being mayor,” Phoebe said in earnest. “Someone with your recommendations could easily be a mayor. In fact, with the right wife you could become governor. A president, I should think.”
William squinted painfully, as if he had been struck on the head with a chance acorn. “I don’t think I would take to that sort of life,” he said. “I know cows. I know sheep. But running a town? I would be happy enough running my own barn without it burning down.”
Phoebe shook her head irritably. “No, no, no. It is simple, really, running a town. It is like a barn. You merely need to shepherd the people, as you do with cows and sheep. It is no different, truly. I can help you do it when we are married…”
William’s dark eyebrows lifted in surprise, furrowing his brow like plows. He sighed. “Phoebe, that is not possible,” he said. “I’ve tried to be soft about this, but you are making it hard for me. Marianne and I are getting married. You are too young to…”
Phoebe did not wait for him to finish. The tears gushed, followed by the venom. “Marianne is a stupid cow!” she screamed. “I’m the one with money! Why don’t you want to marry me?!”
William stepped back, one hand raised while the other cradled Phoebe’s unwanted-yet-won quilt, and his eyes darting about in wild terror. Dogs barked in the distance.
“Phoebe, please,” he pleaded. “It is not about money. This is about love. And I love Marianne. She is of marrying age. You…you are too young.”
“Then wait for me,” she said, her lips quivering with chaotic, conflicted emotions. “I’ll be of age in a few years and then you can marry me!”
“Marianne and I have been engaged in secret for two years, Phoebe,” he said. “I cannot break my vow to her.” He held out the quilt for Phoebe to take. “It would hurt her, and it would hurt myself. You have to understand. She and I were meant to be…”
Phoebe jerked the quilt away from him and threw it to the ground. Her scream was an infernal peal of primal rage. She pressed her hands to her ears and then ran away in a wild direction, heedless of where she was going. She ran and ran until the town square, and the town itself, was lost to the evening mists and shadows.
“She lied to me!” Phoebe wept. “The old witch lied to me! Will won’t marry me! He hates me!”
Sobbing and running, she went downhill until she finally fell to her knees, breathless beneath a wanly-glowing willow tree. The moon slowly rose, as if gloating over Phoebe’s sorrows. Her whole body rattled and shook with her weeping. She did not care about anything thereafter—whether wolf stealing through the woods or viper creeping through the weeds—and did not observe the world’s clock as it ticked on and on.
And yet, after a time, she stared down at her new dress. It was a French dress quite fashionable in Parisian salons, and now it was stained with the derisive touch of grass. She did not care. Her whole life had been marred, she thought, because William would not be bound to her. She wished her father would pillory Marianne and have her flogged. Phoebe was so wrathful that, had she seen Marianne’s face then, she would have clawed out Marianne’s pretty blue eyes. Blue eyes! Like William’s! As if matched by Providence! All of their children were fated to have such blue eyes, and they would taunt and haunt Phoebe to the end of her days!
“Weeping again, child?” the hag said. “And on your wedding night?”
“Do not…mock…me…” Phoebe said between sobs. “Leave me be. I just…want to…to…die.”
The hag cackled—a phlegmy, thick cackle like wet, rotten wood split by an ax. “You will not die, child. Not for many a year. You have too long a married life to live. Too many children to bear. Your groom comes. He will be here soon.”
“Go…away!” Phoebe rallied, her rage crashing, like lightning, through her shower of tears. Her hand found a stone, and she raised it with a fury.
The hag was gone. All around Phoebe was now silence and the moon-drawn shadows within Devil’s Fen. Lips still trembling, Phoebe rose to her feet. She breathed reluctantly, as if to breathe meant to endorse the life she now lived with all of its inherent hopelessness. Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she turned toward the slope leading out of the Fen. Up from the valley her eyes wandered, as if looking for a sign. She found one. There, atop of the hillocky expanse, was a figure etched black within the moonlight.
“Wi…Will?” she whispered.
The figure approached her, walking with the same strong, long loping stride that stamped William Clements’s approach.
“Will?” Phoebe said louder, with more hope and joy. “Will, you do love me, don’t you?”
She wished to run to him, but dared not move, for she feared it was a dream from which she would abruptly wake.
The moon slid down lower as the figure descended into the valley toward Devil’s Fen, its full orange glow unobserved. Phoebe waited by the willow tree, the world overcome with a silence pregnant with anticipation. No whippoorwills chanted. No crickets chirped. No wolves howled. The silence pervaded, and Phoebe could hear her own heart pounding hard in her chest like thunder.
“Will, I promise I will be your perfect wife,” Phoebe said, or whispered, or mouthed. “I won’t ever disappoint you. I will love you, and honor you, and cherish you. I will bear you many sons with your same blue eyes and perfect white teeth.”
The figure came to the bottom of the valley’s slope, nearing the willow tree.
“If you want to be a farmer, you can be a farmer,” Phoebe said. “I will be a farmer’s wife. I don’t have to be a governor’s wife, or even a mayor’s wife. So long as I am your wife. Will, I…”
Phoebe’s mouth went slack, loosening into a gawping hole of horror.
The scarecrow loomed over her, its frog-face broad and leathery and stinking beneath its withy hat. Something dark and wet and fresh glistened all over its lips, dribbling down its cheeks and chin.
“No…not you…” Phoebe whimpered, shrinking in terror. “Please…go away…”
The scarecrow did not go away. It leaned forward, its familiar blue eyes inching closer. Its leathery lips curved upward, then parted wetly. Gleaming in the milky moonlight, each one as finely white as any polished pearl, were many an immaculate tooth—teeth more immaculate than any others in all of Wischmeier County.
Nobuteru was grateful that he had just hauled his last bundle of bamboo into his bamboo hut near the forest. As he let it drop next to the firepit the heavens let their rains fall with a thunderous clap and a boom, the thatch roof suddenly resounding with a hushing downpour. His wife, Aoi, squatted by the firepit, cooking fish and rice, her belly swollen beneath her peasants garbs. Nobuteru ’s son, Eiji, came hurrying in a little later, his bamboo fishing pole abandoned to the rain and his garbs soaked through and through.
“Come to the fire, Eiji, ” his mother said. “The rain has a chill. ”
Eiji squatted next to the simple firepit where the bamboo burned and the fish and pot of rice cooked. Nobuteru watched his son, and looked fondly on his wife, and was grateful for the bamboo and all that it provided. Without it, they would not have shelter against the rain, nor warmth against the chill, and so all seemed well in his simple life. They ate their fish and rice, and Nobuteru offered prayers to the gods of the forest, and listened to the rain with a deep sense of gratitude as he fell asleep.
It was later that night when Nobuteru was woken by Eiji ’s sobs. He roused, unlinking himself from Aoi, and peering drowsily into the moonlit hut. He saw Eiji standing near the corner. The rain had not stopped, and it was black as any night might be. Yet, Nobuteru saw what he wished he did not see. There was a long arm extending out of a cracked bamboo shaft. This arm was pale as a fish ’s belly, and lustrous, glowing pallidly in the darkness. It ’s fingers were thin, more jointed than any man ’s finger, and black claws arched out of each tip. Gently, covetously, the hand petted Eiji ’s black hair while the boy stood transfixed, trembling in the caress of the elongated fingers.
Nobuteru leapt up and pulled his son away from the hand. The hand curled its fingers in a gesture of deference, raising its waxen palms up as if beseeching a gift.
And a voice spoke.
“Nobuteru, I have blessed you, ” said the voice like wheezy wind through bamboo. “Now you must repay my kindness with an offering of your own. ”
“What are you? ” Nobuteru whispered, fearful he might wake his wife to this horror. He held his son behind him, protectively.
“I am a generous spirit that has benefitted you, ” the voice said from deep inside every bamboo shoot. “I only ask what is yours to give in turn. ”
“You cannot have my son, ” Nobuteru said.
“Oh, but how many sons and daughters have you taken from me? ” the voice said. The arm caressed the bamboo walls of the hut, and felt among the ashes of the smouldering fire. “So many sacrificed for your comfort and health. ”
Nobuteru did not know what the spirit was, and so knew not how he might appease it. “Ask for something else, ” he said. “I will do what you wish. But you may not take my son. ”
“I will have your daughter, then, ” said the voice, rolling its hideous fingers in waves.
Nobuteru looked at his wife. He stared at the swell of her belly beneath her clothes.
“Very well, ” he said. “If you can take her now, do so, but do not harm my wife. ”
“No, no, no, ” rattled the voice softly. “I must not harvest her until she is of age, as you do when you cut down my children in the forest. ” The arm withdrew into the narrow bamboo. “Five flood seasons from now. No sooner…no later…five flood seasons and I will harvest your daughter by the bladed moon… ”
The voice died away like a withdrawing wind. Nobuteru felt his son shaking beside him, and knew himself to be shaking to his very bones as well. Yet, he knew he must not let Aoi know. He turned to his son, knelt down, and took him by his shoulders.
“This is all a bad dream, ” he said. “Do not tell your mother. She must not know. Promise. ”
The tremulous boy nodded obediently.
Nobuteru wasted no time in cutting down the bamboo forest. Every day he cut down as many shoots as he could, swinging until his calloused fingers bled and his arms ached from wrist to shoulder. He did not bother to set the decimated bamboo aside and let the sap flow free from them. He cut and burned, cut and burned, desolating the forest all around his hut. His wife thought he had lost all sense, but little Eiji helped his father in earnest, for the cold sweat of fear from that harrowing night remained upon him. The pale arm haunted the two of them in their dreams and in waking daylight.
Meanwhile Aoi grew large with child. Upon the day of her pangs, a daughter was born. Rather than pleasing Nobuteru, he paled at the sight of the beautiful child and hurried out to clear away more of the forest. He thought that if he destroyed the forest then the forest spirit —or whatever it happened to be —would lose its place in the human realm and become lost elsewhere; untethered from the mortal spheres. He cut like never before, and was as a wildfire in his destruction.
It was not long before Nobuteru ’s obsession became infamous. Other woodcutters and farmers in the area complained, claiming he had gone mad. A priest was sent from a local shrine and he spoke to Nobuteru, admonishing him.
“Such profligacy displeases the gods, ” the priest warned as he looked on while Nobuteru busied his axe among the remaining forest. “This forest is sacred to spirits, good and evil alike! ”
“Well do I know of such things, ” Nobuteru said. “It is why I work so single-mindedly. ”
He revealed the truth about the visitation of the spirit, of the demand for Nobuteru ’s daughter. Hearing his story, the priest grew pensive. It took many moments after Nobuteru had finished his account before the priest spoke again.
“We must purify your daughter, ” the priest said. “Perhaps the evil spirit will depart. ”
The night of the ceremony, Aoi was told of what was to happen and why. She was fearful, for their daughter was now a healthy toddler, quick on her feet and sharp of mind. Her name was Aiko and she was the delight of her parents ’ hearts. They cherished her, as they did her brother. To lose Aiko when so young, and to such a horrid fate, frightened Aoi. But she trusted in the priest, even if she had grown to distrust her husband, and so when the priest told her that she could not witness the exorcism she took Eiji to fish while the ritual took place.
The ritual lasted all day and night. What was seen, and what was better left unseen, neither the priest nor Nobuteru ever spoke thereof. It was said that the priest had become like a man in famine, so hollow were his eyes and cheeks. The priest died before the Summer ’s end. Nobuteru did not suffer so final a fate so abruptly, but his hair turned white as hoarfrost and there was a dimness in the light of his eyes at times such as when thin clouds pass over the moon. Nonetheless, he reassured his wife and son that his daughter was saved. Aiko seemed unchanged, the vibrant look in her green eyes still lively and undaunted. She had witnessed horrors and emerged as clean from the ordeal as the sun after the morning fog has fallen away.
Years passed. Aiko grew taller, talkative, and inquisitive. She was deft with her hands, weaving strong fibers together ingeniously. Her laughter was such that birds halted their songs to listen in admiration and wonderment. Nobuteru and Aoi were pleased by her, and never disappointed. To see her run and laugh after her brother was to see joy such as bodhisattvas should envy their childish play.
Whereas Aiko blossomed, the bamboo forest did not grow at all. No more shoots sprang up from the smouldering soil, and the soil eroded with the wet season. When the river swelled it carried silt over the land, and yet the land grew nothing. The spirit was gone, it seemed, and with it the forest.
Nobuteru moved his family upstream, away from the remnants of the forest. He became a fisherman to sustain his family. Eiji helped greatly, having grown taller and stronger, now more like his father than ever. He worked hard for the family, especially for his little sister, and tended her every whim with patience. Yet, sometimes Eiji was disquieted, and was overtaken with gloomy moods, thinking back to the night that the pale hand extended out of the bamboo and caressed him. But he did not speak of such things to anyone. He kept his fears to himself to keep such fears from his loved ones.
Four years passed and it seemed the fears had passed with them. But while the family lived well, there came creeping a pernicious effect on Aiko. Slowly, the sweetness leeched out of the little girl. She became rigid around her parents, and uncaring. Her green eyes hardened and looked not with daughterly fondness, but an otherworldly detachment. She did not sing, after a time, and did not run and play. She walked stiffly, as if her joints did not work well. Sometimes she simply stood in the wind, upright, stiff-bodied, but bending with the wind as it blew about her. When her parents spoke to her, she rarely spoke in turn, and when she did speak she spoke with a whispering voice like rustling leaves. This troubled Eiji.
“There is something wrong with Aiko, ” Eiji said one day while out on the boat with his father. “She is no longer as she was. ”
“So long as we stay away from the forest, she will be well, ” his father said. “That is what the spirit promised. ”
“You cannot trust an evil spirit, ” Eiji said.
“Nor do I! ” Nobuteru shouted. “That is why I moved our family here. The curse is lifted if we remain far from the forest. The priest saw to it. ”
“But father… ”
“Enough! ” his father snapped. “That is all! Do not speak of it anymore! ”
Eiji did not speak of it, though he thought of it despairingly.
That night the rain fell hard. The thatch roof buckled beneath the weight of it, but the roof did not collapse. Nobuteru stoked the firepit as his family huddled around for warmth against the misty chill. No one spoke, the rain drowning all sound. Eiji watched Aiko with a feeling of foreboding. He did not know why, but he felt something terrible was going to happen. The premonition stroked at his hair like a long-fingered hand he knew years before.
Gradually, they all fell asleep. They could not hear the river beneath the heavy rain. When the water rushed in through the hut, they started and cried out, scrambling to stand as they were swept sideways. Eiji helped his mother, holding her against the flooding torrent, and Nobuteru clutched at Aiko. They trudged through the water as it began to drag the hut in the bullish flow. All seemed hopeful as they left the hut behind. But then Nobuteru tripped, and lost hold of Aiko. Aiko did not struggle, but floated away into the wet darkness like a plank of wood without a will of her own. Her father scrambled to catch hold of her again, crying out to her. He failed. Weeping, the family struggled to higher ground, and found it among the foothills. They did not see Aiko again that night.
The next morning the family followed the swollen river downstream, eyes red with tears as they stared into the currents, half in hope and half in horror. They called for Aiko. They prayed to the gods. Nothing answered them. When they found her body, she lay in a field clustered with the remnants of bamboo. Her face was pale and clammy, and so they knew that she was dead. They dug a grave for her in that alluvial plain, erecting a stone shrine where she lay. When the river receded there grew up a dense bamboo forest around the shrine. It was shunned by animals and people alike. Whispery voices could be heard among the leaves, and the melodic giggles of a girl. It was said that if a woodcutter entered the forest he felt long fingers caressing his head. No one dared to cut the bamboo in that forest again.
“But they are so crude, Mary,” Elizabeth remarked, setting down her cup of tea on the arbor’s table. A slight Summer breeze made the cool, foliated shadows wag like tongues all around them. “What possible enjoyment could be had in a servant’s company?”
“He is well versed in many pastimes,” Mary said. A hot flash of redness flared in her pale forehead and breast. It was so red as to nearly match her auburn hair. It was not a shade of embarrassment, however, nor fury. She fanned herself leisurely, despite the cool breeze and shade. “Many a singularly fine pastime.”
“He is handsome,” Elizabeth said. A smile betook her face, as if she had tasted something quite sour and wished to hide it. “I will grant you that. But there are many handsome gentlemen in London of equal looks, and far superior wealth.”
“I have no need of wealth,” Mary said. “I am an only child, as you know, and subject to no male relative who might contend my claim to my father’s estate. Moreover, Desmond is excellent with his hands in a manner entirely unknown in gentlemanly circles.”
Elizabeth cast a curious glance to Jenny, nettled. The latter was too concerned with a white ribbon in her hair to notice. Elizabeth chided her.
“Jenny, you are of an age that ribbons such as those should be abandoned utterly. And you are married. Married women have no need of girlish ribbons.”
“These ribbons were blessed by Father Willoughby last Sunday,” Jenny said, still attempting to tighten the ribbon. “They are marks of chastity.”
“But you are married,” Elizabeth argued with an irritated shake of her head. Her black curls quivered, tied up atop her head and away from the nape of her neck like some tragic Greek heroine from bygone times. “Chastity is impossible for a proper conclusion to such a ceremony.”
“To the contrary,” Jenny said fussily, pulling at the golden strands of her hair. “William and I have decided to remain chaste for the time being, even while in wedlock. When he is…when we are ready to produce children, the ribbons shall come down.”
“And the petticoats shall go up,” Mary said, giggling. Elizabeth frowned at her, which only provoked greater giggles. Mary sipped her tea to regain her composure. Birds sang in the distance. Evening wore on slowly, the sun descending reluctantly.
“You are a naughty creature!” Jenny exclaimed, encrimsoning as a cherry unclaimed from the stem.
“And why should I not be?” Mary posited, seriously. “I am a woman of independence and means. I need answer to no one.”
“It is a luxury not all can afford,” Elizabeth admitted begrudgingly. “Nor do I think it one I might indulge, for I cannot discern how it could be worth the price.”
“A failure of experience,” Mary said, sympathetically, “leads to a failure of imagination. Were that your husband could be capable of speaking Desmond’s tongue! You would never wish to leave the house, either for society or for a fresh prospect. Nor would Paris or Rome offer, in all their splendours, temptation enough to lure you thither.”
Jenny frowned, then finally released the ribbon in her golden hair. “Surely he could speak such a tongue anywhere in the world and you would find yourself doubly satisfied in being abroad and being in desirous company.”
“Not so,” Mary said. “For it would presume impudence and impropriety. Desmond is apt at his tongue, but not at many others, and so his low-breeding would be immediately apparent, even to a Parisian crumpet.” She tapped a finger upon her chin thoughtfully. “Especially to a Parisian crumpet.”
The conversation now at an end, they nodded and sipped their tea. Mary looked very pleased in all accounts, whereas Jenny and Elizabeth were perplexed, albeit in different regards. Another of Jenny’s ribbons had come undone, and so she was very vexed in setting it right atop her head. Elizabeth frowned, casting furtive eyes of judgment sidelong at her host and friend.
“It is all jolly-folly,” she said meaningfully.
For Mary’s part, she was so warm and glowing with a language only she knew among the three of them that when the wind grew chillier, she did not mind it, even as her friends shivered. The trees themselves seemed to shiver, too, for the shadows stretched long and the sun slowly sank into its shadowy bed.
“My, I should be getting home,” Jenny said, hugging her shawl about her shoulders. “Arthur will be wondering at my absence. Though, I doubt overmuch. He loves spending time with his schoolyard friend, John. They are inseparable, you know. They get along so well together. Much more, I am afraid, than even Arthur and I get along. But we are young, and our marriage fresh. I am sure there is time enough to grow together.”
It was Elizabeth’s and Mary’s turn to exchange shrewd glances.
“Will he keep you warm, Jenny?’ Mary asked, mischievously.
“With a fire, perhaps,” Jenny said, misunderstanding. “Arthur is so thoughtful that he always insists that my bedroom be tended to most, often to the neglect of his own bedroom.”
“Separate bedrooms?’ Mary said, suppressing a smile. “But how does Arthur tend to your fire, then?”
“Alfred, his butler, tends to it when the night comes on with its drafts,” Jenny said simply. Naively. “Alfred uses the poker rather deftly, like a wizard conjuring fire.”
“So, too, does my Desmond,” Mary said, barely suppressing a giggle. “But Elizabeth,” she said, turning to her other friend, “what is the arrangement between yourself and your husband, Matthew?”
Elizabeth cleared her throat, though she could not clear the sharp edge of vexation in her voice.
“Matthew and I sleep in separate chambers,” she said, as a judge delivering a bitter verdict. “ I cannot abide his smoking…or…” She faltered a moment. “…or his attendance to my fire.”
Mary gave Elizabeth a sympathetic smile, patting her gloved hand. There was a goodly deal of condescension in the latter act. “I am sure there is a servant apter at the art. My Desmond is indeed a wizard, conjuring flames with a mere wag of his tongue.” She smiled puckishly. “He speaks whole infernos into being. And they keep me warm throughout the most frigid of nights.”
Again, Elizabeth cleared her throat, shifting uncomfortably. She eyed her red-headed friend enviously.
“I do not see how it should take much art to tend a fire,” Jenny opined, obliviously. “Alfred is nearly senile, and yet he accomplishes the task very adequately. At times even I tend to my own fire, exciting it with a clumsy poker. The propensities of fire, and the plenitude of wood, should be sufficient for the need, no matter how novice the pyrolater.”
Mary and Elizabeth exchanged glances—the former, sly and mirthful; the latter, shrewd and irritated.
“Indeed,” Mary said. “Any sufficient measure of wood may feed a fire, but here is something to be praised in that heathenistic affinity in the art of pyromancy. Why, I feel as a wicker woman all aflame with…passion…when Desmond speaks his special tongue to me.” She laughed with a girlish cadence of unconscientious joy. “I am utterly consumed by it, you know. It is always Beltane when he is speaking his special tongue to me.”
Elizabeth scowled. “One can lose one’s soul to such heathenism,” she said, her voice cold with something akin to resentment. “We must be wary of the Devil’s tongue. It can sway angels to lower stations with debased practices and unworthy company.”
“The waves lap wonderfully in my Lake of Fire,” Mary said, too pleased to be affronted, and too emboldened to be restrained. She tucked a curl of red hair behind her ear. “Maybe Lucifer was right. Maybe it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
Jenny gasped, a dainty hand to her little lips. “But your soul, Mary! Truly, we must attend church and repent together! Father Willoughby will rectify these mortal failings. There is no salvation except through Christ, and so you must recant such confusion in your compass. Otherwise it will cost you everlastingly.”
Mary regarded her earnest friend with a condescending smirk—tight lipped, with a nodding of her head. She then turned to Elizabeth, the latter stiff-shouldered and scowling openly now.
“There are times when Desmond’s heathen tongue is so persuasive that I could die in the moment and be eternally contented. Whatever lay beyond that moment of…exultation…is nought but dreary, drafty winds through a dusty hallway. The world burns away with the intensity of it, and all else becomes as soot beneath my feet.”
“And what of the tongues wagging behind one’s back?” Elizabeth demanded, setting her teacup down hard for emphasis on the point. “They can raze reputations and family legacies with the tempests they whip up. Have you ever paused to give thought to that?”
“They are impotent cinders,” Mary replied lightly. “As impotent as the cries of herons on the Isle of Skye. All is obliterated in the inferno.”
“The tongues of fire lap at lost souls in the inferno,” Jenny said, so far amiss in the conversation that her input was no more than the whispers of the breeze through the arbor. Her two friends ignored her.
“And what of friendships?” Elizabeth continued, still scowling. “What of the cost such heresies might entail in regard to them?”
For the first time, Mary’s smile and gleeful tone faltered. “I…I should hope that any true friend might weather the infernos for the sake of a friend as devout in her loyalty and its reciprocation.”
Elizabeth stared hard at her friend, her thin lips set in a narrowly compressed line.
“You take more than you give, Mary,” she said. “It is a problem plaguing many relationships, it seems to me.”
Desmond stood at the foot of the bed like any butler awaiting orders. Tall, lean, and with a grimly-set expression of diligence, he was the very figure of decorum and servitude. Except he was out of uniform. Very much out of uniform.
Mary lay on the four-poster bed, watching Desmond with a cat-catches-canary smile upon her face. She, too, was very much out of uniform, and spread her freckled arms, fixing her fine, smooth fingers upon the headboard. Her pale body flickered orange in the clandestine candlelight. There was no one else in the entirety of her estate. She had sent the other servants home to visit relatives or friends or lovers or whoever would preoccupy their evenings. She did not care. The only interest stood before her.
“Come now, Desmond,” she said. “Attend me.”
“I will,” the denuded man said. “But first…”
He hesitated, falling silent. She could see by the flaring candlelight the ambiguity etched upon his handsome features.
“What do you want?” she asked. “Less chores around the estate? A bauble? I could get something for you while I am away in London next week, visiting Vivien. She knows the quaintest shops where nearly anything can be purchased.”
“I mean to accompany you in London,” he said. “But not in a servant’s capacity.”
Mary cackled in delight. “Oh, you have a mercenary heart! But you know such things cannot be.”
“And for what reason so?” he demanded. “You have said many times that you do not care if high society should know of our attachment.”
Her tone was sobered now; incredulous. “It is not an attachment, Desmond. Do not forget yourself.”
Desmond swayed as if stricken, and Mary’s tone softened.
“I would not have you away from my estate,” she said. “You know I cannot trust anyone to see to it but you.”
The fire in the hearth behind Desmond fluttered to one side, as if a cold draft had hurled itself headlong into it.
“Such patronage does me much honor,” he said, his face dark and his tone sour. “To condescend to someone so low as myself esteems you as to a saint.”
“I will not tolerate insolence, Desmond,” Mary snapped. “You are a servant. In this service do you serve me, still. But that is the total of it insomuch as we are bound. To stoop to pretending that you are my equal would be to lose face. Not in society’s estimation, but my own. And I will never shame myself, nor depreciate my self-worth through such short-shrift.”
“So I am nothing more to you than a servant,” he said, bitterly. “You view me as just another pleasure to be taken for granted. Our intimacy is one strictly of mistress and servant.”
“You are well-compensated,” she said, sitting up and sliding forward. She reached out with both hands and took hold of his wrist, attempting to draw him down onto the bed, toward her spread legs. “Come, Desmond. I will permit you to sleep here tonight, beside me, if you like. Is that the intimacy you require?”
Desmond drew his hand away, and her coaxing smile hardened to an irritated frown.
“Desmond,” she said, “do not ruin this lovely evening with your unwarranted umbrage. We could be both of us quite satisfied if you would simply surrender to the strong instinct inherent in your breeding…”
Desmond yanked his arm free from his mistress at once, turned, and strode to his uniform, gathering it up and donning it in the dimming glow of the hearth.
“Where are you going?” she demanded, her voice pitched with alarm.
“I have attended you in all ways a husband might,” he said. “I have seen to your finances. I have seen to your servants. I have seen to your needs, whatever myriad ways they might manifest. Yet, you have always neglected me in all respects a man should be afforded by the woman he loves and to whom he is devoted. I had hopes for a relationship by daylight such as we share by moonlight. But you value me no more than a beast in the field, wanting me for nothing but to expend your carnal propensities. Nor are you equal in those indulgences, oftentimes affording me no reciprocation pleasure whereas I have selflessly given and given unto a cornucopia of giving!”
“Desmond, please do not leave me now!” She leapt up from her bed, hurrying to him in a bereft state of undress. “Please, do not leave me alone! Come to bed with me. Please.”
He paused at buckling his belt, almost looking at her. But the anguish overtaking his face was dismissed and dignity resumed itself with an austere measure in his demeanour. He donned his shirt and jacket, not bothering with his tie. He headed to the dark portal that was the door.
“Please tend to the fire tonight,” Mary pleaded, following after him. She lay a trembling hand upon his shoulder. “That’s all I wish. You do not have to join me in bed. Just…just tend to the fire and keep me warm.”
“Tend to it yourself,” he retorted. He opened the door and hastened out into the dark hallway, leaving her behind.
Mary felt quite cold, and walked aimlessly about her bedroom like a lost soul. She had come, it seemed, to the Ninth Circle of Hell. Her womanhood was now a frozen lake. Her heart gnawed on Judas in bitter disappointment. She looked into the embers of the darkening hearth and felt the world grow cold to its core.
Elizabeth held her legs apart as Matthew, her husband, thrust against her. It was, as always, over after a handful of minutes. He groaned, convulsed, and then collapsed onto the bed—onto her— and lay there, heaving and breathless against her breasts. Afterward, she looked upon the wrinkled, flabby and pale body of her old husband as he sprawled over her, panting. Pale, loose skin— reminiscent of candle wax long ago melted and now cold—gleamed in the light from the hearth. She was reminded of a warm, wet slug. She shuddered, and not from pleasure.
After a few moments, he rolled off of her and to the side, crumpled like a leaf in Winter.
Elizabeth’s gown was hot, or so it seemed. She flung it from her body, and kicked away the sheets near her feet. She wished for a cold shower.
“You will catch a cold,” her husband said, his breath labored still.
“I am likely for a fever,” she said, laying stiffly now, as if a frozen body in the snow. Her black hair was arrayed about her head, like the halo of some martyr.
They said nothing else. Matthew lay in bed a while longer, then began to crawl toward the edge, slowly, painfully, slipping out and onto his shaky feet. He leaned on his mahogany cane, limping to his nightgown. Shakily, he lifted the nightgown up and over his head, down his cadaverous body. He struck up a cigar before he was to the door, blowing smoke into the dark. The flaring faggot illuminated his vulture features for a flashing moment just before he disappeared through the door and down the hall.
Again, Elizabeth shuddered. She leaned toward the bedside table, taking the bottle of wine in hand. She did not bother with a drinking glass, but kissed the bottle more ardently than she had ever kissed her husband. Drinking herself into a stupor, she set the bottle down—tumbling it to the Turkish carpet below—and sprawled insensate upon the bed, her skin bare to the crisp, cold air. She welcomed the cold, and the oblivion. She welcomed the scorn that was a frigid draft through her bedroom.
She hoped the cold would find her husband in his bedroom and snuff out his smouldering cigar light. There were times when she wished it would find her, and snuff out her own light.
Jenny lay naked beneath the heaving form of Alfred, moaning in pleasure as the butler rutted upon her. It was past midnight and her husband Arthur had gone to bed, joined by John. It was an arrangement both sides found very pleasing.
After Alfred finished, and he had helped Jenny finish, Jenny lay panting to one side of her bed while the butler rose to gather his clothes. He did so swiftly and economically, with no fuss or words. He was much younger than Jenny had said to her two friends while at tea together earlier than day. Virile and somber and handsome and, most importantly, discreet, he was just what Jenny wanted in a servant assigned to such duties. He opened and closed the door with tactful silence, his lean frame disappearing down the dark hallway without the faintest whisper of a footfall.
The butler gone, and the door closed, Jenny sighed in great satisfaction. The warmth of the recent rigors still smoldered within her, hot as the hearth across the room. She spoke aloud to herself.
“Discretion best serves mischief alongside shrewd naivete,” she said. “Strategic naivete. It really does make one impervious to the wagging of tongues, whether they be sheathed in the mouths of society, or one’s own friends. There is no shield like naivete against prattle. They may demean the naivete itself, but what does it accomplish if even a million tongues whip at a mirage in the desert? They may wag themselves dry, but the mirage remains, and so distracts from my little oasis that I keep to myself.”
Having thus spoken at leisure, and in an ease equally earnest, she reached a hand up to the white ribbons in her fair hair. They were tautly tied. She undid them with a pinch of her fingers and twist of her wrist. Her golden hair tumbled down wildly. The white ribbons lay in a heap, like discarded snake skins. They would coil there, in their little nest, until the morning when she would take them up once again and tie the tongues of the world up in incessant gossip entirely amiss of the actual truth.