Kwaidan Season: Inevitability

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.