Trickle, trickle, trickle,
it is but a tickle…
Trickle, trickle, trickle,
Trickle, trickle, trickle,
it is but a tickle…
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.
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.
The monk had come to greatly savor the simple things in life. The wind ’s music through the mountain ’s maple trees. The trickle of creek water sweeping lazily between the mossy stones. The fine taste of hot green tea with ginger and the soup made of onions, seaweed, soybeans and radishes. Simple things expanded his awareness of larger things —of greater things. And so he was contented. His days spent serving the old temple alone in the mountains consisted of sweeping the old wooden floor, tending to his bulbs of onions and ginger roots like chicken feet, long walks down to the sea to harvest seaweed, and the long walks up the mountain, harvesting mushrooms from the woods.
And, of course, he spent many hours in prayer and meditation.
As the sun set in the West he would pray to Buddha in thanks and admire the warm glare of the setting sun peeking through the windows of the temple, touching warmly the sleepy face of the Buddha ’s statue at he head of the temple. Often the monk longed to fall asleep likewise, and often did, maintaining his cross-legged position throughout the night. He woke in the morning stiff and aching, for he was very old, and sometimes he regretted waking in such pain. Yet, he rose, as always, and set about his usual day, listening to the wind ’s music and drinking his simple tea and eating his simple soup, doing his simple chores, and finding simple contentment once again in his long day of peaceful isolation.
But the years dragged on and the monk felt the dead weight of them growing heavier, like decades of fallen leaves bundled atop his shoulders. He did not walk so well in the morning, even after sleeping on his simple straw mat. He had to lean on his hoe intermittently when tending to his garden. When walking up and down the mountain he had to rest on a log, here and there, taking much more time each day to accomplish his foraging. He began to forego such strenuous trips, venturing every other day, and only once each day rather than the many trips he once dared.
And his mind began to fail him. He would boil tea over his fire pit, then forget about it until the leaves had burned. Sometimes he would pick an onion from his garden, eagerly peeling it only to find that he had once before picked an onion for soup that week.
And then the shadows began to come to him.
They came at sunset while the monk was beginning his prayer. They enumerated around the room as the sun ’s rays touched the brow of the Buddha statue. The figures crouched in the dark corners of the small temple, away from the statue. The monk watched them sometimes as they loped about, or somersaulted, tumbling end over end in mischievous mirth. The shadows were small at first, but lengthened as they sun waned, drawing themselves upward with the weak light of the monk ’s single candle.
The monk was never upset or unsettled by the shadows, no matter how stranger their shapes and movements. He observed the shadows impassively, much the same as when observing swallows darting about the cliffs of the mountain, or foxes flitting through the bushes. He knew that his mind was a thing of the material world, and so fickle and prone to wits that would fade in time, bringing with their weakness the phantasms of an unbridled imagination. He accepted this fate calmly, and so let the shadows do as they willed while he prayed impassively, grateful that the Buddha should allow him the wherewithal to understand the looseness of his mind and, therefore, resist its indulgent fancies as the hallucinations grew more vivid.
But then came a nightfall when the shadows ceased their jovial prancing and devilish tumbling. They stood around the monk, arrayed along the temple ’s old walls, flickering as the single candle flickered, and staring.
And then they stepped forward from the shrouds of their shadows, the figures manifesting at last in corporeal form. They were now flesh and blood —or so near as yokai might have been —and the old monk could smell them, could see them clearly, and, had he dared, could have reached out and touched them.
Yet, the old monk was not perturbed.
Foremost among these demonic figures was a creature very much like the monk himself. He had a bald head, prayer beads around one wrist, an old stained robe as modest as the old monk ’s, and a wrinkled brow. Had the monk owned a mirror to know what he, himself, looked like now, after years of isolation, he would have known that this creature was the perfect reflection of himself. That is to say, the perfect reflection except for the third eye embedded in the creature ’s forehead. It was a mockery of the Mind ’s Eye, its pupil slitted like a serpent ’s.
“You poor wretch of a monk, ” the three-eyed monk said. “For decades you have served the Buddha, and for what reward? Aches and pains and old age. ”
The old monk responded with a level voice. “Humility comes by many means, ” he said, “and is its own reward. ”
The three-eyed monk shook his head in mock-pity. “And yet you have not achieved Satori. So much sacrifice —decades of one ’s life in lonely wilderness —and all for the profligacies of a deaf-mute statue. ”
Again the old monk replied with a level voice. “Buddha speaks and hears as he ought, ” he said. “If I utter a prayer, and it is unheard, then it is still heard by the Buddha within me. ”
The three-eyed monk laughed, his dusty cackles echoing in the dark, candlelit silence of the temple. “We shall see what answers you when given temptations. Yes! Then shall we know how true a Buddhist life you lead, for anyone may be a Buddhist monk who hasn ’t the temptations to lead him astray from the Path. ”
The three-eyed monk clapped his hands and a figure stepped forward among the grotesque throng. It was a voluptuous woman in a silken gown. No, two women! They shared the same kimono, and then, letting it slip to the floor, they revealed that they shared the same body, conjoined so that there were two heads, two arms, two legs, and three breasts between them. They were beautiful, their womanhood glistening wantonly in the candlelight. They beckoned to the old monk and moaned, kissing one another as they batted their long eyelashes at him, fondling their breasts and caressing their womanhood with their hands. Their twinned voices rang out in ecstacy. The three-eyed monk leered at them, and leered at the old monk.
“You have been celibate your whole life, ” the three-eyed creature said. “Be embraced by Desire itself, before it is too late and you vanish into the unfeeling shadows once and for all. ”
The old monk trembled slightly, in desire and in repulsion at his own desire. Yet, he remained cross-legged upon the floor.
“No, ” he said, his voice quivering. “The kiss of the wind on my brow is more than I ever needed. ”
Other demons among the throng readily took hold of the voluptuously twinned wanton and drew her in amongst themselves, pleasing her and themselves as was their wont. The three-eyed looked on a while, grinning, then gestured to another creature.
There came flowing out from among the demons a long serpentine dragon that glittered brightly. Its scales were of gold and jewels, and these treasures rained down upon the temple floor as the dragon streamed and bent and twisted about the temple. Clutched in its clawed hands were large pearls wherein reflected the old monk ’s face.
“You have been poor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said. “Take of these precious treasures and buy a kingdom! Buy two! You would live in comfort and . ”
The old monk could see himself in the pearl, carried around in a palanquin by strong young men through a palace hung with silk and ornate with golden statues of Bodhisattvas grinning vastly. Young women in lovely kimonos served him fruits and played music for him as he lounged among them, reclining among pillows stuffed with peacock feathers.
Seeing himself luxuriate brought to mind the aches in his lower back, and in his hips, and in his knees and bones all over. He trembled to think how wonderful such comforts might have been. But he felt shame.
“A roof above my head to keep out the rain, and a small fire to fend off the chill…that was always wealth enough for me, unmatched by any other earthly treasures. Wealth is the reward from the work of others, heaped unjustly upon one ’s lap. Why would I debase others, and myself, by encumbering them with my earthly burdens. Our chains are ours alone to bear, and easy chains of jewels and coin bind us all the more strongly. ”
The figures among the throng laughed as they scrambled to scoop up the wealth shed by the golden dragon. The three-eyed monk watched them with great pleasure at their haste and havoc, especially as they fought over the jewels and swore and grappled. After a time, he clapped his hands and the yokai retreated, their arms and tentacles and appendages encoiling great wealth. The three-eyed monk grinned, beckoning forward another among the grotesqueries gathered there.
Coming forward with a clumsy, ponderous step was a Tanuki. It ’s large eyes gleamed beneath its straw hat, its bulbous belly (and sack) bouncing together as it stepped forward, carrying in its hairy arms a large cauldron. The cauldron steamed fragrantly, redolent with meats of every kind; of ox and fish and chicken, all flavored with spices from the West and the tastiest vegetables the old monk had ever seen. Heaving the cauldron up, the Tanuki slammed it down, sloshing the delicious broth and shaking the temple to its withered timbers.
The Buddha statue, however, remained unmoved.
“You have abstained from flavor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said. “So feast, now, and know the true bounty of the earth in all its splendor. ”
The monk opened his mouth —but whether because of hunger or refusal, even he did not know. His stomach gurgled at the spicy flavors that tantalized him as they breathed fulsome in the small, crowded temple. The monk moaned silently, but did not move. At length, he spoke, though speaking was made more difficult by the salivating of his mouth.
“A simple soup and tea nourished my body, mind, and soul unto great satisfaction, and I neither wanted or needed more. ”
The three-eyed monk squinted suspiciously. Shrugging, he waved a hand at the throng gathered, and they all converged upon the cauldron, scalding themselves unmindfully as they scooped out the delicious food and gobbled it down. Not even a droplet of broth remained after they emptied the cauldron.
“So much you have abstained from, ” the three-eyed monk remarked. “And yet, so much could return to you at a word. ”
He raised his hands and clapped them yet again, the candlelight flickering as if struck by a shearing gust of wind. When the shadows around the temple wobbled back into a steady candlelight, all which the old monk had denied himself was once again before him: the conjoined wanton and her three breasts, the golden dragon and its visions of luxury and comfort, and the Tanuki ’s cauldron, brimming with succulent meats and spices.
“Now choose, ascetic, ” the three-eyed monk said, gesturing to the temptations arrayed around the old monk. “Choose to indulge or abstain. It matters not either way, for upon this final night of your life your deaf-mute god does not care. No one cares, except yourself. ”
The old monk looked at the splendor before him, and he looked at the indifferent, graven statue of the Buddha. With a wheezy voice, the old monk spoke.
What he said, only his inner Buddha heard.
It was many years before another monk was sent to the isolated mountain temple. When he arrived he found it deserted. There were swallows in the rafters and the garden had overgrown with weeds. The Buddha ’s statue sat as it had always sat, his eyes closed in sleepy detachment. The young monk did much work that day, preparing his home, and much more work the next. For a week he worked to make the temple habitable again. He did not remove the swallows, but let them remain, diligently cleaning up after them when they made messes upon the temple floor. Later, when he lit his candle one evening to finally pray as he knew he should, he saw a shadow flicker from the candle that was not his own. Whose it was, he did not know. When he glanced around, he saw no one. Only he and the Buddha statue occupied the temple.
For a time.
They call me Yasuke here in this foreign land of short, almond-eyed people. Being a slave, I dare not contradict them. By the grace of Allah, these people find some novelty in me, and so esteem me better than my Jesuit master, Alessando Valignano. Perhaps they will buy me from the Jesuit. I would be far from home, but I would be far from home regardless. And the mule prefers the bug bites in Spring to the bug bites in Summer.
My new tongue has not improved much. I doubt they would think better of me were I so fluent in their tongue; no more than the Jesuits think better of me for my mastery of their tongue. And yet I speak with more tongues than they, and not so falteringly as others so split between tongues. Valignano does not suspect how many tongues with which I may speak. If he did, he might well beat me for presumed insolence. The gnat whines at the ear of greater creatures, thinking the ear insolent in its size. And my back stings with the bites of this Jesuit gnat.
By the strength lent by Allah, I endure.
Lord Nobunaga must think well of me, however, for he gifted me generously a chest of copper coins, and all for the sake of the novelty of my dark skin. He thought it some sort of trickery at first. He bid me doff my clothes, head to waist, and his servants scrubbed at my chest. In vain, it was, and so Nobunaga was pleased. The Jesuits were pleased, too, and commandeered the coins for the works of their God. I was not sad to see the coins go. It was a trifling amount compared to the riches of the Caliphate. Moreover, no amount of wealth might buy me my freedom from these infidels. But as Allah sees fit, I abide.
Presently, we ride to Kyoto on a long road. Valignano is a fool, as are his followers, but they have about them an escort of samurai. This is a pretty land, as unique of feature as its people, and I admire its beauty. The plum trees are especially pretty. Yet, I feel misplaced among this infidel splendor. Though much honored, I am still a foreigner among these small people. More so than even the Jesuits, despite their idiotic faux pas and petty squabbles of conversion.
Even among the Jesuits I am an outsider.
We camp for the night beneath a copse of maples, around a fire. I sleep apart from my Jesuit travelers. We have been warned of bandits, and so I keep my hand ready upon the sword which Lord Nobunaga gifted me. I sleep lightly, dappled by the pale light of the moon as it peers between the branches like the face of a houri. My Jesuit brothers sleep well, for I hear them snoring. The samurai, too, sleep well. I cannot sleep. This land entices me to prayer, for Allah made this land too, though I know not why its people are infidels. The wellspring from which they sprang conceals its truths with its lovely mists, or perhaps their land reveals other truths of Allah which are not known to us in Istanbul.
I pray in the direction of Mecca. I hope Allah does not begrudge me the late hour. I can never pray when Valignano is awake, for he admonishes me severely for the practice. He berates the people here, too, and despises their religion of the Buddha. Why Nobunaga has offered him samurai for protection, I know not. Perhaps he wishes to protect me. But I need no earthly protection, for I have Allah. And Allah restrains my hands from choking the life from Valignano.
Prayer often offers me comfort, and reawakens my faith, instilling strength for my daily suffering. It is the light guiding me through this unending darkness. The shadows fly at the words exulting Allah.
Yet, when I rise again I realize that the moon no longer shines on my face. Rather, a giant shadow looms over me, the moon at its back.
“Hello, brother,” a voice growls. It is like the bones of a thousand sinful men grinding beneath the millstone. “Why do you share fire with these tasty creatures? Let us make a feast of them beneath the moon.”
The crackling of the campfire flares at the suggestion, and I see a three-eyed man with dark black skin and horns such as a bull on his broad head. He is taller than even I and reminds of a demon or djinn. I believe such a creature is called an “oni” in this land.
“Speak, little brother,” he growls. “Or do you claim them all for yourself?”
His breath stinks of rotten meat, and his voice is edged like a scimitar with challenge.
“I am not of your kin,” I confess, still clutching the sword at my side and ready to draw it against this infernal creature. I stand up, slowly, and find that I am two heads shorter than the oni. “I am a man. But I will fight like a demon if you attempt to harm me.”
The oni squinted his three eyes, the third eye in the center of his forehead. “Yes,” he says. “I see my mistake now. Far too small to be my kin. And already cooked, by the look of your flesh.”
“I am a Moor,” I say. “From faraway.”
“A rare meat, then,” the oni says. “I shall savor you.”
He reaches for me with clawed fingers. I unsheathe my sword, clumsily. I have not had the practice of its uses yet, though I The oni pauses, and withdraws his hand. But not because of my blade. He sniffs and frowns.
“You have the stink of a foreign god about you,” he says.
“Allah—may he ever have mercy—claims my soul,” I say, or as well as I might in the foreign tongue. “If I die here, or anywhere else, it is by his will.”
The oni grimaced, his large white fangs grinding within his mouth.
“A foul stench,” he says. “I do not care for it. It fouls your soul, little black man. A foreign god in my lands, and a foreign god in your heart.”
I nearly struck out at him for the blasphemy. “Allah is no foreigner in any land or heart,” I say. “For he made all, including you, demon.”
The oni laughs, insolently scratching his loins beneath a skirt of flayed skin.
“But he smells of other winds and other waters. I do not like his smell. It is arid. Stagnant. It reeks of death, but not such as there is pleasure in it. Only a wild, exultant zealotry which I care not for.” He pointed to the Jesuits. “No different, I suppose, than the smell of the god on those hairy little men.” He sniffed some more, leaning closer to me, his foul breath enveloping me. “But there is a more interesting scent beyond the gods that claim the lot of you. A smell of many other gods. Faint, but spicy, and not so lost as you would wish them to be. Gods grown in more interesting lands. Lands more honest to their gods than whatever place you now call home. Better gods. Truer gods. Gods displaced by this foul being that claims you like a spider a butterfly.”
“You speak blasphemies!” I say, readying my blade.
The oni turns away, indifferently. He chuckles, lumbering toward the edge of the copse.
“I will not partake of this feast,” he says. “There is already a feast taking place: a feast of fools, and your soul is being shared among them. What will be left of you when they have finished gnawing your soul with their many petty little mouths?”
Laughing, the oni fades into the gathering mist, vanishing like a shadow beneath the awakening day. His voice growls faintly one last time.
“All that will be left will be your dark black skin, and by this will you be known. By nothing else…”
I stand in the ensuing silence, shaken. After a long moment, I sheathe my sword—fumbling a little, and, so, loudly. The sibilance wakes Alessando Valignano.
“Yasufe?” he says, scowling at me. “Make no more noise, for the sake of God! Or I will thrash you for your stupidity.”
“My apologies,” I say, bowing my head.
Valignano grumbles, then adjusts his robe and turns over, sleeping on his side. “Dim-witted animal…” he mutters.
My rage finds me but a moment, as a djinn unleashed from a bottle, and I wish to draw my sword again and drink blood as any demon would. But I let the spark extinguish. Left alone once again to the silence of the forest, I think about gods and demons, of man and meaning, of tongues and truths.
Beware, my friend, beware!
If you care, if you dare,
to go make some night soil
when in nights black as oil
near lakes both dark and still
and you feel a slight chill,
if you squat, drop, or stoop,
Kappa will have his soup!
He likes it fresh, of course,
likes it fresh from the source,
so you mind from behind
or he will not be kind,
taking the best of you
for his witching hour stew—
reaching for an hors d’oeurve,
up your butt, like a perv.
I have smiled at him, but my sweet Nie has not smiled back. He has eyes only for pretty little Uba, that Ganguro slut with her blonde wig, caramel tan, and sparkling pearlescent eyeshadow. What can my plain lips do against her glittering white lips? And those scintillating stars at the corners of her eyes? Those long black eyelashes that would make a horse wince in envy? Oh, my sweet Nie! You belong to me, not to that painted-up whore. But do I even have a chance?
“Do you like the lanterns?” Uba asks him.
“Yes,” Nie says, but he cannot see the lanterns as they line the streets. He is too dazzled by her red eyes. The orange lanterns hang all around the town. It is the lantern festival, the Obon time of the year when a young man’s heart is at its fullest and can be stolen from his true love by a devilish yama from the mountains.
“Do you want to hold my hand?” Uba asks him.
He chokes on the word “Yes” and holds his hand out as if he is touching a sacred shrine. She takes his hand, and takes his heart, and they walk farther along the lantern-lit streets. The glow around them that turns the starry night into a lurid dusk. I follow, for he is my Nie, not hers, and I will not let her take my Nie for herself.
“I like to hold your hand, my Golden Boy,” she says.
He blushes and I feel my hair rustle with anger. It tingles all the way to the beads and barbs.
“You remind me of someone I used to know,” she says. She slips her overly tanned arm around his waist. Her fake fingernails are gaudy with glued-on jewelry; a kitschy coral reef capping every fingertip.
Can he not see how fake she is? She is but a wile—a glamor and guise in complexion and bearing and fashion. Whereas I am traditional; very traditional. Pale-skinned, raven-haired, and wearing a respectful kimono for this festival, as is only proper. My sweet, sweet Nie! Please look at me and see me smiling! Please smile back! That is all I ask.
They stop by a charm shrine. Nie buys a silver ofuda amulet and tries to give it to Uba. Ah ha! You stupid hussy, what will you do now? She turns away and my poor Nie is crestfallen. He does not understand. Of course not! How could he? I see my opportunity and wave to him. He sees me, sees my smile, but turns away, following that Ganguro slut as she slips away— never far away from him, but always in sight among the throngs of people lining this street. Dear Nie! Do not follow her! It is but a game, and she will lead you on and on.
He has dropped the amulet. I dare not pick it up. It is meant for Uba, and I will never accept secondhand gifts.
But I will accept you, Nie!
Beneath the spherical lanterns Uba and my Nie reconcile. They stand in front of a Niomon, the two wooden warriors standing guard before the shrine. The warriors’ expressions are fierce, unflinching, and Nie wants to go inside to pay respects to his dead. Again, she drifts away, aloof, pretending at upset. He follows her like a forlorn puppy— follows her golden thighs and hot pink skirt and flower-blasted tanktop. It is an illusion, Nie! It is all an illusion!
They slip farther away from the shrine, and the center of town, nearing the outskirts. Here the lanterns are like full moons along the streets, hanging from the eaves of shops and shrines and restaurants. Nie and Uba move through the throngs of people as if they are moving through figures of mist, whereas I am caught in the torrential flow. Too many charms here. Too many ofudas. I am snagged on every little bauble, my hair unruly and my barbs and beads tingling with panic and terror and excitement. Tonight was supposed to be our night, Nie. How could you abandon me for that gaudy Ganguro slut?
A woman approaches me, blocking my view of Nie and Uba. She smiles widely— a jagged-lipped smile that is too wide.
“Do I look pretty?” she asks.
“Get out of my way, slut.”
I shove past her. I don’t have time for silly games. My Nie is escaping me, and the night is fleeting.
The woman stoops to pick up her scissors, but they are lost in the crowd.
I am distraught. I cannot see my Nie! My hair is disheveled, and quivering. Nie! My scalp tingles for you! This lantern festival was supposed to be ours to share!
I spot Nie and Uba down the street. Relieved, I slip closer and follow. Nie is walking toward a vendor of sweets.
“Want some mochi?” he asks Uba.
No, my Nie, neither of her mouths eat sweets.
“Yes, please!” Uba says, chiming like a bell. Her voice is sweeter than any ball of sugar and gelatinous rice and red bean paste could ever be. But it is a wile. It is as false as a demon’s bell of summoning.
Sweet Nie buys a large mochi so they can share. Uba pretends to eat it, but does not truly swallow. When they continue down the street her other mouth spits it out from beneath her blonde wig. Oh my naive Nie! You are not meant for her! She is a thief aglitter with gold and stars and pearlescent makeup all stolen. It is an artifice! Do not trust her smile, either! It is falser than a Noh mask of lacquered wood! But my smile, Nie, is genuine, and it is meant only for you. See my smile, Nie, and smile back.
As I follow them I can feel the thunderous drumbeat of drummers down the street. They beat their drums like a storm and I fain think it might rain. But the night is clear, the moon is bright, and the stars sparkle lustrously; far more beautifully than those painted-on stars adorning Uba’s rounded cheeks. It is Obon season and the air is warm as if it, too, is celebrating the lantern festival. But I only feel cold. A chilly fear consumes me. Nie, please! Come back to me! I only wish to see you smile.
A handsome man in a tuxedo steps in front of me, grinning. I do not like grins, especially those with sharp teeth. I like smiles, but only Nie’s smiles.
“Hello beautiful,” he says. “Are you lonely tonight?”
“Shut up, dog-face,” I say.
His grin slides into a frown. He has his black hair oiled backwards into a pompadour. He is dashing, or at least he is to some women. To sluts.
“I am not a dog,” he says.
“No, but you’re not my Nie, either,” I say.
He nods, considering me up and down. “Very true,” he says. “Nor would I wish to be.”
“Your tails are showing,” I say.
When he twists around to look behind himself I shove him into a group of schoolgirls that happen to be passing by. He falls down upon one, groping for purchase like a clumsy idiot.
“Pervert!” they scream as he scrambles to get off of their friend. The handsome man tries to apologize as he rises, but grabs one of the standing schoolgirls by the skirt to try to pull himself up. He instead pulls down her skirt.
“Help!” the girls scream.
Several men and women come rushing, striking at the man in the tuxedo. He has so many tails, and yet is still a fool. I walk away. He is not a pervert, but he is desperate. We are all desperate in Obon season Even so, he deserves to be ran out of town, if only for lack of tact. He could have at least followed tradition by wearing a kimono, like me. But he is too conspicuous. Just like Uba, that slutty hag. They are cheating. Breaking the rules. It makes my hair stand on end, like a cat’s. It is quivering in disarray atop my head, trailing down my shoulders and covering part of my face in perpetual shadow. Those people who see me are dismayed and move out of my way.
But not my Nie. He will be able to see my smile, if he would only look. And then he will smile back and all will be well.
I have lost sight of Nie because of the tuxedo fool. I stop by a vendor serving strange meats on sticks. He has a big smile, but not the smile I am looking for. His smile is a mask.
“I am looking for my Nie,” I tell him. “Have you seen him?”
The vendor never blinks, and his smile never falters. His lips never move when he speaks. “Nie, you say?”
“Yes,” I say. “He was with Uba.”
“Lots of young men are with Uba,” the vendor says. He holds up a stick of pork-like meat to emphasize what he means. He does not sweat, even though his food stand is as hot as the underworld itself.
“He is not with her yet,” I say. “That is why I am looking for him.”
“I see,” the vendor says. “Does he look like this?”
He wipes his long kimono sleeve across his face, removing his eyes and nose and mouth. His face is as blank as an egg.
“No,” I say. “Don’t be stupid.”
If the vendor had looks, he would look disappointed.
I walk on, searching for my Nie.
There are two lions loose near the temple. They have silly faces, but they will kill me if I go near them. So I go around the long way, hiding behind a group of children holding a large lantern of Pikachu. The lions do not pay attention to the children.
“Komainu,” I hear someone mutter beside me. I turn and see a bald, turtle-faced man wearing a straw hat over his head. He looks green, like he might throw up at any moment. He swoons now and again, water trickling down his face. “I should have never ventured so far from the water,” he says.
Feeling irritated at his presumptuousness, I shove him out toward the lions. The water under his straw hat spills out almost completely upon the street as he tumbles to the road, frozen in a paroxysm of helplessness. He pleads for help, but people ignore him. The lions circle him and then pounce, tearing him apart. No one tries to help him. Why would they?
While the grimacing lions are preoccupied I go further down the street, looking for my Nie among the countless celebrants. I happen upon a group of children. They are wearing lanterns on their heads— all except one. He is in the middle of them, his head covered with green leaves. He beats a drum. Or at least I think it is a drum at first. Then I realize it is not. He is not even a child. And he has no sense of shame. He leads the children in a crude song:
“Tan-Tan-Tanuki’s balls. No winds ever blowing, but still they go swing-swing-swing!”
The chorus leader beats his hairy drums with a mischievous gleam in his dark-ringed eyes. He thinks he is so funny.
I see my Nie and the slut Uba watching a Bon dance down the street. The dancers are little girls all dressed alike in kimonos colored like pomegranates. My Nie smiles widely, waving to a little girl among the dancers. She smiles back at him.
“She is my sister,” he tells Uba. “She has been practicing the dance for weeks. She wants to do it perfectly.”
“She does it so perfectly!” Uba chimes, smiling widely. Her red eyes sparkle. “Such a sweet little treat she is!”
My Nie nods innocently, not understanding what she means.
“Come, my Golden Boy,” she says. “Let’s go someplace more private.”
Angry now, my hair tingles and twists, tress against tress. I must stop her! He is my Nie!
A trio of priests wade through the crowd. One is dressed in red and the other two in white. They see Uba and Nie walking together. Good! Perhaps they will repel her back into the mountains. They are looking at me now? No! Go after Uba! She is the monster! She must have put a spell on them. I must flee them into the crowds near the sea, then into the trees. And so I do just that. Kneeling down in the undergrowth, I watch the priests. They look around, then stick charms upon the torii gates leading into town. They leave. I weep because I do not see my Nie. Where has he gone? Where has that star-cheeked slut taken him now?
There are people on the seaside, setting their lanterns in the water. The lanterns glow to lead spirits away, or to reconcile ancestors, or to help find young people love, or whatever it is humans think the lanterns do. What it really means is to make an offering. But where is my offering? Where has he gone?
A presumptuous woman waves to me. She is carrying a red peony lantern.
“Hello, Hari,” she says. “Any offerings yet?”
“Uba has my Nie!” I confess to her.
She nods sympathetically. She is pretty, but only in a certain light.
“Then you should let her have him,” she says. “And find another. Anyone would be delusional to think they could take anyone from Uba.”
“You are delusional!” I cry, shoving her aside. She almost drops her lantern. I do not care. I would not care if she turned into a pile of bones in front of all the celebrants.
I walk along the shore, feeling very upset. The sea is serene, but my heart is a tempest. Where has my Nie gone?
I fall to my knees, steeped in bitterness like an overripe tea. What more can I do? My Nie forsakes me. I could have done what Uba has done— I could have painted myself up like a whore. But if he does not want me for me alone, then so be it! I will not even carry a peony lantern to falsify my beauty. Love me, as I am, Nie, or let me rot!
I sit upon the shore, and look out at the languid waves. It is a black sea, but calm. I realize there are two moons in the sky. Gazing indifferently, I sigh. The two moons move closer to the shore, riding a mountainous surge of dark water that rises over me as if it will crash upon the shore. It does not crash, however, but lingers, its two luminous eyes glowing sullenly from within dark torrents. Its shadow engulfs the beach.
“Go away, monk,” I say. “I am in no mood for company.”
The gigantic wave does not leave. It lingers, watching me with its large, luminous eyes. I stand to leave, and the head from the abyss follows me along the shore, its eyes unblinking like an apoplectic pervert. I stop and shout at him.
“Leave me alone!”
“Do you have a ladle?” he asks. His voice gurgles like a drowning man’s, and vibrates like a storm at sea. Otherwise there is silence. Even the wind is as still as a dead thing.
“No!” I say.
“I have a ladle,” he says. “I used it to sink a ship for my offering. The sailors made sweet music as they sank into the sea.”
“I do not care!” I shout. “I only want my Nie!”
The giant head turns left and right, its eyes searching the shoals. “Does he like to swim at night? Take him for a swim tonight and I will show him beautiful wonders at the bottom of the sea.”
I ignore him, leaving the shore behind. I feel upset and lost, for my Nie is lost from me. Oh, how I hate stupid monks!
I walk for a while, feeling dejected. Moaning, I glance up at the forested mountains. There are lights floating in among the trees, like lanterns in the middle of town. They are onibi; lights from souls. A few flare here and there, white and yellow and blue. They remind me that time is fleeting and I must hurry to save my dear Nie from that Gungaro slut. The lights lead the way, trailing up the mountains. They might lead someone else astray, but they will not fool me. They know better.
An onibi moves to block my way— flaming large, like an orb of fury—but when I walk through it, it dissipates and extinguishes like a snuffed cigarette butt. It had likely been a man in its former life; a man both dramatic and ostentatious and empty. Unlike my dear Nie. Nie is not shallow. He has depth to his whole being.
And I yearn to explore those depths.
There she is! I could see that gaudy glow from the other side of Japan. She glows among the shadowy forest path, eclipsed here and there by trees, but unmistakable. She is heading up the mountain with my Nie. If she takes him up to the craggy summit then he will be lost from me forever. All will be over. All will be wasted in this world, and the next.
I hurry to follow them. Passing under the torii gate, I creep up the path, staying far enough away that they cannot see me.
“It is much more beautiful at the top of the mountain,” Uba says. “The stars are closer and the moon brighter. We will be able to see the fireworks much better. It will be so kawaii.”
Her voice chimes again, like the daintiest prayer bell. I want to shove a giant bonsho down her throat and hear what her voice sounds like then.
Toro are on either side of the mountain path, their stone angles gray and green with moss. They are lit, but not by human hands. They burn with the light of the onibi. Farther ahead I see a procession of men and women carrying lanterns up the mountain. They are only kimono phantoms to me, but they all turn to watch that slut Uba with her gilded face and her meretricious getup. They speak to each other like the rustling of leaves. Stupid gossips. Their heads are as empty as their eye sockets. I push my way through their throng. They part like mists, and then become as a mist girdling the mountain. Their lanterns flare off and on like fireflies. What airy-headed fools!
The mountain is high, like a stairway to the stars. I do not know when I can rescue my poor Nie, but it is not right now. I must free him from Uba when she is most distracted, otherwise all will go wrong for me and my Nie.
I pass an abandoned shrine crouching within the woods. Its wooden eaves are covered in lichen and moss and fungus. Its eyes are hollow and dark. Faces— barely discernible from the darkness—stare out from the scrolled eaves of the shrine.
Suddenly, a monk appears out of the mountain mist, grinning.
“Hello, lovely,” he says. “Would you care to…”
“I see past you,” I tell him absently.
He cranes his long, slender neck up, up, up, grimacing, but does not bother me, walking by on his footless stumps. I am so tired of monks today!
Trailing behind Uba and Nie, I listen to their idle chatter.
“I want to go to Tokyo University,” Nie says. “Become a physician. Help people who need it. That is my dream.”
“Wow!” Uba says, her voice like a koto string plucked, its notes lingering on and on. “Cool!”
“You think so?” he asks.
Uba nods emphatically.
You have such a big heart, my Nie. But you waste it on Uba. Give it to me. Please. One smile, my dear Nie. One smile and you will open your heart to me! My hair quivers at the thought of it!
“What do you want to do?” Nie asks the false-faced slut.
Uba pouts. “Oh, I do not know,” she says in a melancholic tone that is still too bright and cheery. “I’m not as smart as you are, my Golden Boy.”
“Sure you are,” he says, rending my heart. “You can do anything if you just put your mind to it.”
“I really just want to be a mother,” she says, batting those paste-on eyelashes. They flap like bat wings. “Raise a Golden Boy of my own.”
My dear Nie laughs nervously. She keeps her arm around his waist, holding him close to her lest something take him away from her. But she has taken him from me! The thief! I will win him back, though! She will not have you, my Nie!
A bothersome badger walks in front of me, grinning. Before he can say anything I kick him off the path. The fat little busybody wails as he rolls down a fern-cluttered ravine. I hope he gets stuck and cannot transform himself a way out of it. So many nuisances today! I almost lose Nie and Uba in the woods. I follow fast, but stay silent. I do not want Uba to know I am following her.
My dear Nie. I love you. I yearn for you. No woman can desire you as this heart desires you. Your dark hair and your warm brown eyes—warm as sesame oil over a flame— are mine. Your flesh, though not so pale as mine, is mine, and so delicious in its tone. Come with me! Forsake Uba and her golden makeup! I need you.
I am not so out of touch to know that young Japanese men are jaded now. Black hair and pale skin do not attract like they once did. Such features were once enough to lure a monk from the Path with a wink and a smile. But now? So jaded. So spoiled. They wish for blondes. They wish for fashionistas. No one cares for a drab traditionalist like myself. But Nie…my sweet, sweet Nie…you were supposed to be different. Why do you follow her faux-glow around like an apprentice monk enthralled to a kitsune? You are special to me. Can you not see? Uba is not worthy of you. But I am. You belong to me.
A hairy man leaning on a crutch approaches from down the mountain. He is very old and has only one eye. Perhaps he fought in the War.
“Help me down the mountain, child?” he asks.
I help him down the mountain by kicking his only leg out from beneath him, sending him tumbling to join the badger in the ravine. I have no patience for mischief-makers, especially not on this beautiful Obon night.
Even so, I am squandering my Obon night. This is the night I was supposed to spend with my Nie. I am becoming tired. I am becoming disheartened. Like the moth among the heavy smoke, I grow heavy-headed and drowsy as the bonfires burn on. I will return to sleep soon, but I cannot let that happen until my Nie is mine.
“You could come with me to Tokyo,” my Nie says. “My parents have connections. You could live well in my apartment while I go to school. Would you like that?”
“I like you, my Golden Boy,” Uba says, her elated voice like a clanging bell amidst the silence of the mountain. “What you want, I want.”
“That is wonderful!” Nie says, mincing my heart with the happiness in his voice. “Of course, I can’t let my mother and father know. What would they think? We must keep it a secret for a while. Maybe a year, and then I can let them know we are dating.”
“Whatever you wish, my Golden Boy,” Uba says.
That manipulative slut! She teases him too much, and is unworthy of him. Kabuki harlot! It is all a show to her. But Nie’s feelings are real, and I want him to feel my adoration and know that it is not false like hers. His heart is important to me.
They continue the ascent, and I continue shadowing them. The night grows chilly and Uba holds Nie even more tightly against her. I wish to cry out. To shriek. To rage. But I must not.
I become more disheartened and start to fall behind. Dispirited, I walk more slowly up the mountain, trudging dejectedly beneath all the weight of my languid hair. It no longer tingles. It no longer floats buoyantly. My head hangs low with the weight of it and I stare down at my bare feet as I walk the path with a slowing pace.
Sensing something nearby, I look up. The moon is caught in a web spun wide and vast between two trees. It looks like a large wispy cluster of eggs. A voluptuous woman hangs down from the tree to my right, her breasts falling out of her black kimono.
“What do you do here?” she asks.
“I am fetching my Nie back to me,” I say.
“Oh really?” she says, licking her lips. “Is he handsome? Is he…delicious?”
“He is mine, you slut,” I say. I grab her by her cobwebbed hair and tug her down to the ground. She lands on her head, collapsing into a spasmodic sprawl of many legs. I kick her fat, hairy butt before she can right herself up on her many legs, then I continue through the forest. I have no time for a spinner of lies. She reminds me of Uba, that bitch that has stolen my Nie.
Uba, I may not be able to overpower you, but I will not let you take my Nie. But why would you want him? You are older than me and could have anyone as your Golden Boy. It is sad. It is pathetic. You are always trying to reinvent yourself now. For modern Japan. Whereas I am true to tradition. You have prostituted yourself out with blonde wigs and fake nails and glued-on glitter like some Barbie doll tramp. And you will not steal my Nie. My hair tingles and writhes at the thought of it!
My hair drags behind me, collecting twigs and grass and rocks in its tresses. It is more disheveled than ever now. I feel no hope for it or for my Nie. Obon is ruined! The festival is nearly over!
It is at the summit, beneath a solitary Cherry Blossom tree, that I find my Nie and the Ganguro slut. She sits down upon a flat rock, not unlike a bench. Her pink skirt shrinks away to reveal more of her smooth, caramel-tanned thighs. The conniving harlot!
“Kneel before me, my Golden Boy,” she tells my Nie.
Dutifully, my Nie kneels in front of her. She spreads her knees, drawing my Nie to her with one hand while her other hand pulls her flower-blasted tanktop up, a large breast plopping out. The slut is not wearing a bra.
“Suckle from me, my Golden Boy,” she says, her voice sweet with cheery cadences.
No! My Nie! Don’t! You break my heart! That slut! That harlot! That disgusting bitch.
I circle around the Cherry Blossom tree, entering its shadow to conceal me from the bright moon. Uba is too enthralled with my Nie to notice me. Quietly, I sneak behind her. I am as silent as the unmoving wind. Only my hair makes a sound, and even that is but a soft sibilance unheard beneath the distant music of the lantern festival.
I wait but a moment, steeling myself, and then I leap forward, snatching Uba’s blonde wig away from her hoary head. She gasps and tries to clutch it back, but I hold onto it triumphantly. Her makeup melts off her face like molten gold, revealing her withered old face. Her breast shrivels in Nie’s mouth, along with her thighs and her whole body, until only her true self remains—an ugly old mountain hag.
Nie cries out in terror, flinging himself away from her. I go to his side, helping him stand. His sesame oil eyes are agog and all he can do is point and tremble. Sputtering, he says only one word.
Uba sneers at me as if she will bury me beneath her mountain. Then she looks at Nie and, smiling shamelessly— the old, stubborn crone!—she holds a hand out toward him while with the other she offers him her saggy, pendulous breast.
“My sweet Golden Boy,” she says, her voice now a harsh wind skirling through mountain crags. “Please be my Golden Boy. Please watch the fireworks with me tonight…”
My Nie staggers backwards in horror, gasping. “No!” He turns toward me for strength, and I embrace him and soothe him, scowling at Uba through my lank black hair.
Uba realizes she has lost. I can see it in her red eyes. Glaring balefully, she turns away, leaping down into the nearest ravine, caterwauling wildly while her second mouth atop her head screams in hungry rage from within her scraggly white hair. The valley below echoes with her screams and laughter.
My Nie begins to sob as the fireworks bloom in the night air around us. He sniffles, then wipes his sesame oil eyes dry. He looks at me now, and the fireworks sparkle in his eyes.
“Thank you so much for saving my life,” he says. “My name is Eichi. I owe you…owe you everything!”
He weeps again, his whole body rattling with sobbing terror. My poor Nie!
I wipe his tears away with my sleeves and caress his face. From up above, in amidst the pink-and-white glory of the Cherry Blossom tree, I hear the caw of a crow. It is like the laughter of a tengu. Encouraged, I smile at my Nie with the fullness of my devoted heart. At long last he smiles back.
My heart hammers in my chest, brimming, and my hair tingles all over my head, now at last fully alive. Nie! My one and only Nie! I want you so much. I want all of you.
My black tresses flail wildly and entwine him, lifting him into the air above me. His screams are lost beneath the thunder of the fireworks. I open my mouth, smiling, and it finally rains as my sweet Nie opens his heart to me.
(This story features a lot of Japanese myths and I wrote it as my own “Nie” or “offering” before I stop posting. Blogging encourages me to write, but have I really made any headway as an established writer? Not really. I am once again going to brave the yokai of the traditional publishing world and see if I can submit something a legitimate publisher will want to publish. I have had very bad experiences in the past when attempting to publish anything and, being somewhat thin-skinned, I chafed at the criticisms (sexist against women and men, really?) Anyhow, no more poems or short stories or art. I am disillusioned. Maybe I will post in the future when I gain more traction. Maybe not.
Beware the mountains—
a mother suckles children
to fatten supper.
as it steals drowned souls downstream—
good manners prevail.
Though the seas are calm
the ships sink to the dark depths—
lend not the ladle.
Coarse, cawing laughter
shakes the trees near the temple,
mocking monks who pray.
Fearsome, flaming beard
and thirst for bloody battle
as befits a beast.
Protectors of shrines,
male and female together,
guarding gates with grins.
One leg to stand on
and only one eye to see,
hiding in plain sight.
Like rain in clear skies
they arrive unexpected,
playing tail-tell tricks.
Spinning many lies
within silken-threaded beds,
a love to die for.