Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Izana - Part 1 (Chapters 1, 2, 3)

Written by: Pomelote

 
Prologue

The air is hot, like the seasons have been reversed. Only my feet are cold and damp, from the muddy water that soaked into my tabi while I walked. The flames make a ferocious crackling, and blaze like they're going to make the night's darkness disappear. The dry wooden walls and posts of the building crumble away into chunks of black charcoal.

Ah, it's so red. So red. So red.

The world has never been so beautiful.

For a moment, the world of scorched grey had colour.

Heaven and earth reversed - and the living became the dead, the dead became the living.

And now, I was born.

At the end of a long death, I finally came into this world.

It was like the plants, at the end of their seclusion in winter, budding and welcoming the spring; it was like part of the natural order.

My thin clothes cling to my skin with sweat, but even that sensation makes me feel alive.

Suddenly remembering, I wipe my lips with my fingers. Nothing comes away. It seems that the crimson dye was melted away by sweat. But even now, I'm sure my lips are red. From elation, I'm flushing, like a rose. Like the flames. Now, I am beautiful.



[A quick Pomelote Public Service Announcement: For anyone curious about supporting the series, Amazon has copies of both Izana and regular volumes of Kasane.]

Chapter 1 - Year of the Fire Horse

“If a baby girl with an ugly face is born in the Year of the Fire Horse, that child is the reincarnation of a witch who was long ago killed, here to bring about disaster to the village as her revenge. Kill her immediately.”

In the village Hirasaka Chigusa had married into, that was the kind of superstition they had.

Chigusa had also heard the Fire Horse brought up when people said that “a woman born in the Year of the Fire Horse has a nature that will cut her husband's life short”. She'd heard that there had even been a “Fire Horse Banishment Movement” in Yamagata the year before. As a result, there had been numerous talks about the harassment families expecting Fire Horse births got from their neighbours. All throughout Japan, many of these superstitions that had disappeared or were likely to disappear were also called “traditions”.

And you could say the legend of this village was one of these “traditions” right on the verge of disappearing. But when you thought about it rationally, the present wasn't a time when a superstition like that could still spread. Highways and the bullet train were opening up to the public, and it had come to be that you could go anywhere you wanted to go; the popularity of refrigerators, washing machines, and colour television spread, and everyday life, culture, and everything in between was advancing at a dizzying rate. The Tokyo Olympics had opened two years earlier, and with every passing year you felt the post-war atmosphere being swept further behind.

Although Chigusa too felt it from the city news coming from the newspapers and radio, in reality, she lived alone in this over-sized house, just barely having a refrigerator, with no washing machine, with a television still in monochrome; the scene remained unchanged like that since she'd been married, twenty years earlier. Even the outside of the house was the same: when you opened the sliding door, rice paddies spread out on the other side of the dirt road there, and the area was surrounded by green mountains. When you walked on the paths between the paddies, you'd find old farming equipment, still unchanged from the old days. It was like the only thing that had changed in the village was the number of homes and the population. It had decreased so much in the last several years that it was rather tragic. But if you ignored that, it was just like time had stopped, like it had been left behind by the times - that was the kind of place Akeiwa was.

Was it because that was the kind of place it was that the people there tended to still treat the legends of child murder and witches as something universal, rather than as a fairytale?

“I came from outside Akeiwa. I don't understand feeling like that.” - for her to think that, Chigusa had always vaguely picked up on the overwhelming distance between her and the other villagers.

* * *

“There's a woman in labour in the house, you need to come quickly. But you can't tell any of the other villagers about this, or even that someone in this family was pregnant.”

After what the matriarch of the local Tsuki family - Tsuki Sasae - had to say on the phone, Chigusa had gone out into the rain-soaked sight of the road at night at a quick pace. She'd closed the medical clinic her husband had built when he died, but before he did, Chigusa had helped out as a nurse. Even now, for minor injuries or colds, if someone requested it, she did her best to see them. It would seem that she was being called out for that reason, but this time it was as a midwife. Since she had her midwifery licence, on top of her nursing licence, there wasn't a problem there, but how many years had it been since she'd last served as a midwife? Adding to the stress of how long it had been, now there was the puzzling way she was being told to do the birth in secret from the other villagers.

The rain that was drizzling when she left the house quickly increased and turned into a heavy downpour, coming down in buckets. The only young woman in the all-male-son Tsuki family she could think of was Natsue-san, who had married into the family five years ago, and that was because she'd happily reported her first pregnancy a few months ago. But when Chigusa tried thinking back on the phone call from earlier, Sasae had used the phrasing “you can't tell any of the other villagers about this”. She doubted there was a single person in Akeiwa who didn't know about Natsue's pregnancy. So was it a different pregnant woman? Why did she need to hide who it was? On top of that, Sasae couldn't very well hide the birth of a child, but she seemed to be planning something.

Having thought about it up to that point, Chigusa found herself afraid to face the Tsuki house.

Maybe there was a problem, and the parents and family didn't want the child. So, what she imagined coming up wasn't very pleasant, but it felt to her that more she thought about it, the nastier that her thoughts, born from of the darkness, got, and she tried to clear her mind and just listen to the rain. Her boots caught in the sticky mud, but she continued on. Raindrops floated like white needles in the beam of light from her torch. The beam stopped about five metres ahead of her, and farther beyond that was just the spreading darkness. She suddenly imagined that this was what it was like for a baby, when it passed through the birth canal, squirming through the membrane - not knowing where it was being born, what kind of people were waiting for it, or what kind of state it was in. It was chilling enough to make her shiver.

When she came off the short hill road surrounded by the woods, a small light appeared. It was a light on the telephone pole that stood in front of the Tsuki residence. It didn't shine very well, but it burned like a fire of hope.

Inside the Tsuki home it was quiet, and on the ground in the damp, black pit floor, numerous pairs of recently-muddied boots had been taken off and left scattered around. Chigusa thought Sasae had said to keep the birth a secret – had people been secretly invited, like her? It wasn't just one or two people. She stood there, unable to call out in the strange silence, but Sasae, noticing her arrival, rushed over and told Chigusa that she'd show her to the mother.

As they passed through a rising corridor, the shouji doors of all the rooms were closed, but dim light escaped from inside the rooms. When she listened carefully, she could hear the sounds of low speaking voices and tea utensils in between the sounds of rain hitting the roof, and sometimes human shadows rose on the other side of the white shouji paper. They were keeping themselves hidden, but there were several people in each room.

They advanced down and down the wooden corridor. The house wasn't that wide, but the distance felt strangely long. Soon, she could hear a strangely thin, low sound, almost stringy, like the moans of a woman in labour. As they got closer, Chigusa became certain -

The voice's owner was not Natsue-san.

* * *

The woman in agony was on a futon in a dim storage room, deep in the house. Chigusa had seen her outside a few times before. She remembered the woman in shabby clothes and with dishevelled hair, walking alone in the woods and on the paths of the rice paddies, and trying to drink water from the neighbourhood well, then getting driven away. Chigusa had asked the woman who owned the well if she knew who she was, but she was told that she was just a lost vagrant from outside. As a matter of fact, on that bitter cold winter's day, the vagrant woman had been sitting, shivering, on the edge of the road, so Chigusa had taken out an old coat of her husband's and draped it over the woman's shoulders. When Chigusa had told her that she didn't need to return it, the woman bowed slightly and left. And when the woman had raised her face from the bow, bulging, frightened eyes shined wetly out beneath her long fringe.

According to Sasae, the woman just turned up two summers earlier, knocking at her door. When she'd looked into it, she was definitely a distant relative of the family, but she'd become comfortable with her disturbing appearance and vagrant lifestyle, so she'd left the house alone without coming inside, Sasae said. But now, for some reason, she was laid up in the depths of this house like a prisoner, her body writhing from pain.

“Kadzura, you understand, don't you?”

At Sasae’s words, the pregnant woman called Kadzura merely moaned in reply.

Chigusa didn't know what Sasae was trying to get the pregnant woman – Kadzura-san – to understand. Eventually, after checking with Chigusa that she had everything she needed, Sasae shut the door and left. Chigusa refocused her gaze from the dry sliding door to the expectant mother. In the gaps between bedraggled hair that clung to her skin with sweat, the same frightened, wet eyes stared at Chigusa.

In less than an hour since Chigusa had arrived, the baby was born. The baby's first cry was drowned out by the sound of thunder. Because of that, it seemed like the people of the house hadn't realised the baby had been born, and there were no signs of anyone coming. Chigusa then realised that the rain had grown into a fierce thunderstorm outside without her noticing.

“Hey, look. She's got my finger.”

On the white futon, as she touched the baby swaddled in soft cloth, Kadzura spoke for the first time. Chigusa responded to her words with a smile, and rose to the doorway to go call Sasae.

“Wait!”

Kadzura stopped her.

“Why?”

. . . . . . ed.

Chigusa could barely hear her tiny voice. But she was pushing her body too much and trying to sit up, seemingly wanting to tell her something, so Chigusa approached and laid her back down. When she asked Kadzura to say it again, it made her crooked lips tremble and tears gather in her unnaturally upwards-turned eyes. Still holding the baby, she remained silent.

Chigusa had already gotten used to seeing her, but seen up close, the issues with her face were impossible to ignore. And the baby's, too. Chigusa didn't like to use the word, but “ugly” was what you called something that looked like this. While she stared at the face of the still-silent, sobbing Kadzura, she connected the dots in her head, revealing a horrifying image. The ugly baby, the mother crying in sorrow, the birth under a shroud of secrecy, and…

“The Year of the Fire Horse.”

At Chigusa’s words, Kadzura’s shoulders shook. She answered in a voice choked from sobbing.

“She’ll be killed. My baby, she’ll be killed.”

At that moment, right as light cuttingly shone in from a small crack in the doorway, a thunderous roar reverberated. Lightning had just struck nearby. It had been the large zelkova tree outside the room, in the nearby garden separated from the corridor by a glass door. At that, the baby nearly burst into tears, but when Kadzura put her index finger to the baby’s mouth and whispered, “ssshhhhhhhh,” the baby curiously stopped crying. It was as if she instinctively sensed that raising her voice would put her life in danger.

But from the gap in the doorframe, a red-tinged light began to flickeringly shine in. When Chigusa panicked and opened the door, through the glass door across from it, flames appeared to be rising from the small Inari shrine at the foot of the large zelkova tree. The fire had broken out from the lightning's direct strike. Judging from the distance between the shrine and the house, the chance of the fire spreading was low, but just in case… Thinking she should probably inform the other people in the house, she automatically looked towards Kadzura, and when she did, Chigusa shuddered at the expression she saw. At odds with the situation around her, eyes shining from the blazing flames, Kadzura’s entire twisted face was filled with a wide smile.

* * *

Since that stormy day, since the passing of Tsuki Kadzura, six years had passed.

Erected besides the Tsuki family’s ancestral gravesite was a tiny, tiny headstone with nothing engraved on it. Every year, when Chigusa came to burn an incense stick on the anniversary of her death, there were always flowers arranged in a cup, to the side of the scattering ashes from the burned-out incense. Perhaps it was Sasae's. A week after the funeral service had ended, Chigusa had learned that the old woman who'd declared that Kadzura was a “distantly related vagrant” was in reality her mother.

In the week after the service, on a summer's day so parchedly sunny that it made the thunderstorm seem like a false memory, Sasae had suddenly visited Chigusa's home. First checking that there was nobody there besides Chigusa herself, she complained about trivial topics like the weather for a while, but in the end she'd went on her knees in the entryway and broke down crying.

“Kadzura... Kadzura... was my daughter.”

Chigusa was bewildered by the sudden confession. Why had she hidden that from her and the other villagers? Why had Kadzura-san been made to live like a vagrant in her own mother's neighbourhood? So many question marks bobbed up. But now, she probably couldn't just ask questions like those to the old woman crying over the child that had gone before her.

“Poor Kadzura... if she hadn't tried to have a child, no, if she hadn't come back to Akeiwa, that damn girl would be alive... ”

Sasae started pouring out her heart. Kadzura was her youngest child, but while she was still small, she had been given to the care of a line of the family that lived outside the village.

“Why, when you felt so strongly about her?”

Unable to stand it, Chigusa blurted it out without thinking.

“She was ugly, don't you see? And the Fire Horse was coming when she came of age. There was a danger that she'd have a child in the Year of the Fire Horse, so I kept her away from the village.”

The answer almost made Chigusa feel a little dizzy. This old woman probably wasn't the only one with a mad devotion to the "tradition". After all that, it seemed that everyone who had been in the house on the day of the birth had been there to follow their usual custom. Chigusa timidly tried to enquire who the father of the baby was, but Sasae didn't answer the question.

“Don't tell the other families.”

Sasae had stood up from the entryway, and she turned to glare at Chigusa, saying that to make sure she understood. And then, like the tears hadn't just happened, she reverted to her usual harsh expression and left the house.

Without anyone at home for Sasae to bear her confession to, it seemed that she'd come to Chigusa to do it. Eventually, after checking that Sasae was far away on the raised paddy paths, Chigusa's nervousness lifted and she finally felt relieved. But it wasn't relief from the awfulness of the old woman's story.

And since that stormy day six years ago, Chigusa had a secret. Back then, during the conversation with Sasae, she had been on edge the entire time, wondering if the secret hidden in an inner room of the house might start to cry...

“Izana”. That was her name.

She was thought to have died along with her mother, but not even a birth notice had been made out, much less a death notice; a girl who wasn't supposed to exist. She had no record in the family registry or family name, just a given name - her sole possession, imparted by her mother in her final moments of life.

In the thunderstorm, watching the flames burning the shrine, Kadzura had stood up, making Chigusa hold the baby, and she said with a smile,

“Tell them that the baby and I died together. Please. She's called Izana. Keep Izana alive.”

Without giving Chigusa time to reply, Kadzura, holding the cloth that had swaddled the baby, rushed out into the garden. Clad in nothing but a thin kimono, she was licked up by the flames in the blink of an eye. The whole thing from beginning to end, from the lone woman throwing herself in the flames to protect her child, to her becoming something like a dark-red puppet, until then falling to the ground – Chigusa still couldn't get it out of her mind.

The secret was still shut up in the Hirasaka residence, and six years had passed. Izana's birthday was today, and Chigusa came home from the cemetery to bake a small cake for her. While she spread cream on the spongecake in the kitchen, Chigusa thought that one day, she would have to tell the girl that the anniversary of her mother's death was the same as her birthday. Then all of a sudden, she felt something behind her, and she turned around. Dressed in an old-fashioned cotton one-piece dress, a little girl with unkempt hair watched Chigusa with her thumb in her mouth. Even though Izana was already six, she had a habit of thumb-sucking that wasn't easy to break.

“Izana, it’s almost ready, so just wait, okay?”

Chigusa spoke with a smile to Izana, who had been attracted by the sweet smell from the kitchen, but the little girl didn’t reply or copy her smile; she just looked Chigusa’s way and slurped her thumb. Doubtless someone who saw her for the first time would want to know why the girl was so glum. Her upwards-turned sanpaku eyes looked just like they were glaring. But she wasn't particularly angry or unhappy, and Chigusa knew that it was just how her face was.

Izana was a quiet, low-maintenance child.

She never cried and she never threw tantrums, and even when she was left to herself, she immediately started to play. But she didn't really laugh and play around like a child. It wasn’t that she didn’t seem to have feelings, but more like she wasn’t good at expressing herself. And in some ways, she often seemed to be carefully and attentively trying to avoid making trouble for Chigusa. On that rainy day, she had suddenly stopped being about to cry just as Kadzura put her finger to her mouth. It was like she had been put under a spell or curse, and since then, it had remained unbroken to this day. Or did she instinctively know that if she wasn't quiet, she wouldn't be safe? Anyway, the little girl lacked what it took to be a healthy child, so in return she seemed to possess some very un-childlike qualities. It couldn't help but seem very sad to Chigusa.

* * *

“The outside is dangerous, so you must never go out.”

“You mustn't ever show yourself outside.”

“The only window you can open is the skylight in the attic.”

Izana followed these absurd orders like they were perfectly natural, without a single complaint. But underneath the obedience, it seemed that something was making her interest in “the outside” grow; on the rare occasions when the taciturn girl started talking, the kinds of questions she would ask were invariably, “What kind of place is 'outside'?”, “Do flowers bloom there?”, “Are there animals?”, “Are there children like me?”

While she answered these polite questions one-by-one, Chigusa wondered anxiously about Izana's coming future. It would be impossible to keep her shut up in the house forever. She needed to make sure that Izana could go outside and be able to survive out there. But assuming she went outside, what would she do? She couldn't introduce herself to the Tsuki family. Not when she didn't even have parents or a family registry, and not to mention her appearance...

“Is the cake ready...?”

Chigusa was startled back to reality by Izana's question. Without noticing, it seemed she had been lost in her worried thoughts. After quickly taking a deep breath, she made a smile and crouched down in front of Izana. When she peered into Izana's face, the upwards-turned eyes behind the messy fringe appeared to be staring directly at her.

“I'll carry the cake, so Izana, can you carry these?”

Saying that, Chigusa slipped two wooden spoons into Izana's little hands. Izana nodded yes, grasped each spoon in a hand, and walked towards the living room. Worried that she might trip and fall at the threshold, Chigusa watched Izana's childish steps.

She set the cake on the low table and sang a birthday song to Izana, sitting seiza beside her. At this moment each year, every year, Chigusa made it a habit to do her best to celebrate Izana's birthday. She did this so that she wouldn't be able to tell that there were people out there who felt she shouldn't have been born.

“Happy birthday, Izana.”

“Mmm, thanks, Chigusa.”

There were no candles in the cake. Chigusa had decided that she didn't want to have fire in front of Izana, since she still vividly remembered the sight of the fire and what it had caused. Anyway, how long would the days like this continue? She was an unusual child, but the spectacle of Izana stuffing her face with cake wasn't any different from an ordinary child. It was nice that she was in such an innocent age. And she, too, would become an adult. She'd reach the age where she'll learn everything, and understand it. Then, what would she think? About her mother, about the Tsuki family, about the village's tradition? And about her own face?

Chapter 2 - Izana

As far back as I could remember, I had no mother or father; instead, I was raised by a middle-aged woman named Hirasaka Chigusa, who was my adoptive parent. The inside of the Hirasaka household was the whole world to me. At some point, I realised that there was a world called “outside” the house. This was when I noticed that Chigusa went somewhere from the front hallway to go do something and then came back from wherever she had been. Until that point, the garden and the tall hedge surrounding it was all I could see from the window, so it never even occurred to me that a world extending further was being blocked.

I had been warned many times by Chigusa that “outside” was dangerous, so I mustn’t ever go there. Out of fear, I vigilantly obeyed her instructions, and I also I didn't want to upset Chigusa.

But once I'd become aware of this “outside” thing, I couldn't help developing a strong interest in it. I imagined the “outside” that I saw in illustrations from picture books. When I'd been taught characters and was able to read, I siphoned up knowledge about “outside” from all of the books in the house. There seemed to be a TV and a radio somewhere in the house, but I learned much later that Chigusa had hidden them, to not seem too interested in the “outside”.

By the time I was getting close to ten years old, I'd read through and finished everything I could understand in all of the books in the house. The characters and pictures written down in the books glorified the magnificence of the world outside. Out there, there were “meadows filled with green”, “blue oceans”, and “white castles”, and “animals” and “birds”, and it seemed like there were “princesses”.

Speaking of animals, Chigusa brought some back home for me a couple of times.

They were insignificant little animals like housemice and cats, but on my part, I reacted with excitement like I was seeing beasts of legend. My heart fluttered to know that what was drawn in the picture books was true. I couldn't get enough of looking at them, fluffy and adorable, but apparently they were borrowed from somewhere, and Chigusa went to return them at sundown.

My interest wasn't limited to just animals, and the seasonal plants that Chigusa arranged and the colourful gemstones she would sometimes let me see stirred up my imagination. If even plants and animals and stones could surprise and excite me so much, I was sure that something even more wonderful would happen when I saw other human beings – that was what I thought. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise to be shut up inside and ignorant, to some extent.

And of all the fairy tales in my many picture books, the ones I liked best were the ones where beautiful “princesses” appeared. In my imagination, I was often a princess, and adventure opened up to me in the outside world. When I would indulge in these fantasies, the first thing I'd do was shut the door in my room and turn off the light. I didn't even know the term “theatrical blackout”, but I knew that a moment of darkness was a way to make everyday reality disappear.

And then, when I turned the lights back on, it was no longer an old house in Japan. As if by magic, I could be in a field of alpine flowers, or a snowy plain, or even on a beach. By that point, I'd have already noticed that it was a fantasy. So after that, I'd cling to the fiction, not caring that I was trying to live in a fantasy.

And the information I gleaned from the books wasn't just cheerful and fun. The children who lived “outside” seemed to have “mothers” and “fathers”. They seemed to have “friends”.

I had Chigusa, but she wasn't my “mother”, and she'd told me that my “mother” had died. I hadn't really understood what “dying” meant, but when Chigusa told me that it meant she was so far away that I could never see her again, I spent the whole day sobbing inconsolably on my futon. And I was usually a child who didn't reveal much emotion, so it was probably especially confusing for Chigusa to see me crying on and on.

At one point, I noticed that a difference between me and the children in books was that they had the freedom to walk around outside. I'd been told about the dangers outside, so I had taken it for granted that all living things got that freedom when they became adults. I felt like it was the only thing I didn't have.

Why did the children in books have that freedom, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, but I didn't? When I talked to Chigusa about it, she would make an apologetic face, like she was sad about something, and have trouble finding the words to reply. I hated making dear, kind Chigusa make a face like that.

Maybe I had I done something terribly wrong at some point, without even realising it? And in punishment, had the “outside”, and “mother”, and “father”, and “friends” been taken away from me? In the end, thoughts like those reigned inside my mind. What could I do to be forgiven?

Childish and stupid that I was, so that I'd be forgiven for whatever it was, I tried to bother Chigusa as little as possible. To make dear Chigusa happy, I'd decided that I had to become a good adult.


* * *

One day, the year that I turned twelve, I found myself shocked at some words I found in a book.

It was in a description for the word “school”.

I had already known about schools before then, so I'd thought that it was somewhere I'd be going one day, too. But in the book, it said “Children enter primary school at the age of seven, and attend for six years.”

I was already twelve. If I went to primary school now, there wouldn't even be a year left.

And if I hadn't been to primary school, I couldn't go to middle school, either?

Could I become an adult without going to school? But... I had to become an adult, for Chigusa...

Maybe I'd always be stuck in this house, until I died? When I had these thoughts, I couldn't help getting worked up. My craving for the “outside” had swelled with every passing year, with every bit of knowledge I'd gained, and so had my craving for other people. Earlier in my life, I'd felt like it was perfectly normal to live in the house, but I'd come to feel cramped at not being able to go “outside”. The colours of the tatami mats, the texture of the posts; all of the familiar sights made me feel uncomfortable. I wanted to at least try to see what kind of place a “school” was. Even if I could only go once instead of permanently, that would be enough.

There was little chance I could keep my desire in check any more.

There was only one day in the year I could be sure Chigusa would be away from the house from morning to night on. That day was New Year’s Day. From early in the morning to late at night, she was away helping in the festival.

Thinking that that was the only time, I started hatching a plan to go see a “school”. A lot of people seemed to gather for the festival. There would probably be a lot of children there, too. Assuming that, there probably wouldn't be many people at the school. To get there without being discovered, I would have to do things just right.

First, while Chigusa wasn't home, I sneaked inside the addition to the house, which had been used as a medical clinic.

Usually, I wasn't supposed to go in there, but my desire for “school” and “the outside” overrode my feelings of guilt for breaking the rules. I stopped outside the room there and pushed open the door. It didn't have a lock. When Chigusa's husband's was alive, it had been his study and clinic. On the dust-covered shelves were countless rows of old medicine vials, and on the desk, yellowing old papers had been carelessly stacked. I felt like if I touched even one or two of them, I might get infected with something poisonous, so I walked carefully so as not to touch anything. When I saw the bottoms of my socks, they had gotten pitch-black from the dust. I saw the stacks of papers on the desk, and immediately spied what I was looking for. A map of Akeiwa village. In the past, I'd occasionally happened to see Chigusa go into this room and bring it out. In retrospect, she probably needed it to make her medical rounds in the village. And it wasn't just Akeiwa itself recorded on the map, but also the surrounding communities. I carefully spread it out, and slowly looked it over. ...then, I found it. The words “Outsuki Primary School”, not in Akeiwa, but in a nearby town called Outsuki. Not knowing how to judge distance in the outside world, the distance from the house to the school didn't seem that far to me, and I was thrilled that I'd be able to go there. I tightly folded up the mouldy, browning map and crumpled it into my pocket, and put the room behind me.

* * *

On the first of January, on a morning wafting with new air, I was holding my breath on my futon, waiting for Chigusa to leave the house. After checking for the sound of the front door closing, I waited for about an hour before I timidly creeped off the futon. Just as I did, my whole body was engulfed by the chill of winter. Maybe it would be colder outside than it was inside?

I went to pull out a beige coat that Chigusa used to wear a lot a few years ago from her bedroom closet. I put it on over my favourite dress and my wool cardigan and ran out of the room, the coat baggily hanging from me. But then I sat down in the front entryway and thought about something that had been bothering me.

I didn't have shoes. After agonising over it, I pulled some extra pairs of socks on over my tights and tried on a pair of Chigusa's shoes, but as soon as I tried walking, my feet popped straight out. I'd actually been looking forward to wearing shoes, but there was nothing I could do about it now. I stood up at the front door, still in the extra socks. I timidly touched the sliding door. When I put my strength into opening it, the glass in the door made a clattering, creaking sound. The sound increased my nervousness. What would I do if Chigusa was outside, or something much worse than her was? But I finished opening the door, and the second I saw what was on the other side, my thoughts vanished in the wind.


At first I was dazzled by the light. It was a brightness incomparable to the light that came through the glass on the verandah. The first thing I recognised when my eyes got used to the light was the deep, endless blue. That was when I first learned the reason why the frosted glass in the bubble that was the entryway always seemed so blue-ish. 

And when my eyes completely took in the whole image of outside, I was dizzy for a moment and leaned against the sliding door for support. There was much too… much too much of it. Beyond the grey road was a patch of unattended dead grass, and beyond the dead grass was more beyond, and beyond that was more beyond. The house seemed so isolated. The things that seemed so small were probably very far away. And even farther beyond, that thing that looked like a light-grey picture - was that a distant mountain?

But even more than anything else, there was no end to that bright blue sky. I always saw it from the skylight, and had planned to learn how high the sky was. And yet, the sky stretched out before me, bigger than that blue rectangle multiplied hundreds of times, thousands of times, no, far, far more times than that, so big that I couldn't put it into words.

My mouth, which was already large to begin with, hung wide open, and forgetting to blink, I gazed at it like I was absorbing the image.  

I think I was like that for a ridiculously long time. Although I was worried about being found by someone, with my powerless legs, I couldn't even take a single step from the front door.

But I remember the “school”, and I ready myself and take a step onto the ground. The ground's wet softness and the cold chill clamoured through my socks. And after that first step “outside”, I took another step forward.

There didn't seem to be any human figures in the area, but the hard grey road was so wide that I felt like I would stand out too much, so I crouch-walked on the grass on the slope beside of the road. Under the slope the grass turned into marshy ground, and after a while I figured out that it was all that remained of what was once a paddy farm.

At first I was frozen by the chill of the north wind as I walked, but as I pushed my way through and disappeared farther into the grass, I warmed up and started sweating. I didn't have a watch, but I walked for what was probably an hour or two. The sun climbed overhead. It was obviously the first time that I had walked for so long. Then, the footpath through the field stopped, and I walked in the woods that continued alongside the road. Huffing and puffing, I leaned against a tree as I caught my breath. From there, I had to get off the path before it went deeper into the forest. On the map, from the Hirasaka house to the road that went on to Outsuki was only about 10 centimetres, but in reality, even after so much walking, it didn't seem like I was any closer to reaching it. And the school was another 20 centimetres on from that. I started to get worried about whether or not I'd get there while it was still daylight. The sights of the forest were more lonely and frightening than I had imagined. The leafless trees exposed their bony, dry bodies and sometimes, from under the dead leaves piled so high that the ground couldn’t be seen, the shapes of bizarre mushrooms appeared. Despite all of the fallen leaves, the forest was deep and dense. The more I walked, the more disheartened I felt. 

Boom. Boom. Boom.

I was surprised by the loud noise and jerked my head and shoulders up. But I realised straight away that it was just the sound of a drum. Every year on New Year's, you could hear it even from inside the house. I spreading the map and tried checking it, and I noticed that the shrine the festival was held was somewhere closer to the mountain path than I had thought. Chigusa would be at the shrine. There would definitely a lot of people there. I had to get off this path quickly, or I'd be discovered. But, my legs hurt already. I feel impatient, but I wanted to rest. Surveying the area, I saw a fallen tree the exact right size on some high ground about 10 metres away from where I was sitting. Despite the gentle slope, I almost tripped and fell several times, but I finally made it to the fallen tree and sat down. While I gave my body a rest to catch my breath, I was overcome with an inexpressible anxiety. With the vastness of the forest, and with flat ground far on the other side of that far-reaching mountain, was I afraid to be alone in such a never-ending world? From my birth until then, all I had known was a world of strict limits, a world where when I tried to walk, I would immediately bump into a corner. Without even realising it, I was sucking my thumb. I'd thought that I'd cured my thumb-sucking habit, but for some reason right then, I'd had a relapse, even though I was twelve. I wanted to stop straight away, but maybe from tiredness, or from anxiety, I couldn't just take it out of my mouth. Like that, feeling like my heart was gradually relaxing, I continued to suck my thumb. After some time, I noticed brightly-coloured things fallen here and there on the dead leaves. They were rubbish from cheap sweets, brand new. Faced with evidence for the existence of other people, my sweat instantly grew cold. Soon I could hear the chatting voices of what sounded like several people.

Jan, ken, poi!”

“Hey, no cheating, Takashi!”

“Ahahahaha!”

Besides Chigusa, this was my first time coming across and hearing the voices of people, and my mud-splattered legs began to shake and tremble. From where I was, I still couldn't see them, but they had definitely been there a while. From the sweet wrappers spread around the area, I figured that they were probably children, using the area as their playground.

I had to hide. But –

Then, contrary to the fear and anxiety, my mind was taken over by a faint hope. That hope was what fastened my feet fastened to the ground and made my eyes and ears face the voices.

Maybe we could be “friends”?

That hope, bit by bit, inch by inch, grew. If we became friends, I could be one of those cheerful voices and play with them. When we were friends, they would be there for me, and wouldn't tell on me to Chigusa. My heart throbbed, and my body got hot again. Despite the fear, I didn't have any negative thoughts. I was still in my picture books.

Soon, I could see children at the top of a hill. There were a pair of boys and a pair of girls, respectively. The tall boy became aware of me, frozen where I stood, and stopped what he was doing.

“Hey, that's-“

The other kids noticed and looked my way. At the same time, one of the girls let out a small scream.

“Kyaa!”

“Who’s that?”

“Dunno.”

“Where’d that kid come from?”

With the tall boy in the lead, the four children timidly approached me. Were they afraid to meet a new kid, too? There had to be something I could do so they wouldn’t be afraid, so we’d become friends. Chigusa’s face flashed into my head. Her kind and elegant smile put me at ease. Right away, I ran my fingers through my long, fickle hair to adjust it, and looked at the four of them. Then, I tried to make a gentle smile like Chigusa’s: squinting my eyes in a smile and turning up both corners of my mouth.

“Uwaa!”

“Jeez!”

At first, I didn’t understand what was wrong. Maybe they couldn’t see my smile? As I was trying to figure out if I should try smiling again, the smallest girl muttered, with a face that looked about to cry,

“She's, like, creepy...”

Just as I opened my mouth to say “I’m not creepy!”, the tall boy suddenly yelled.

“I’m not scared of someone like you! Hey! What are you doing in our secret base?!”

His harsh voice surprised me, and the words slunk to the back of my throat.

“Hey, this kid looks like a monster! What a face!”

“Like I said, creepy!”

“I’m not scared of her! She's just a real hag! Hey, grot! Get out of here, it's our place!”

“That’s right, get out! Grot! Ugly!”

“Go on, find somewhere else to be! Monster!”

One of the girls, with a face pale with fear, threw a tree branch. Then, following her lead, the other kids also started throwing branches and pebbles while they jeered. I ran back the way I came, as fast as my legs would carry me. They didn’t come following after me, but the sad reality that I hadn't known pressed at my back, driving me forward. I ran and I ran, and I kept running. I fell over once or twice. My face was sodden with tears, sweat, and snot. Eventually, when I came out of the forest, the blue sky suddenly stretching out before my eyes, I came across a run-down cabin off to the side of a desolate meadow. It seemed that it had once been used to keep farming equipment in. Past the door, misaligned with its frame, and the damaged, rotting walls, I stared into the inviting darkness. Stepping into the darkness like a bug escaping from the light of the sun, I sat down unsteadily on the hay. Panting and gasping for breathe, I had trouble getting back to normal. In truth, it probably wasn’t that great a distance, but I'd still never ran for so long before. I would have wiped my tears and snot, but the cuffs of the coat were already caked with mud. As my breathing eased, my choked sobbing lessened, but didn't stop. I didn’t know the word “grot”. But I had come across the word “grotesque” before in books, and I knew that it had a similar kind of meaning. I remembered the perception I had of myself, the princess I had been in my fantasies. Why hadn’t I known? Why hadn’t Chigusa told me?

“I... I'm ugly.”


* * *

A thin rectangle of sky peeked through a gap in the door, and slowly changed from pink to orange. When I saw the soft hues from out there, my heart pounded, deeply moved. But I merely felt empty inside. The layers upon layers of socks had come loose on both my feet, and I took my thumb away from my face. My tights had torn from when I had fallen over, and the blood on my skinned knees hadn’t dried yet. The tips of my fingers and toes were chilled to the bone, and I tightly balled up to close myself off. After a while, I could hear the playing of a distant band. Growing frightened by the gradually deepening darkness I had sunken into, I crawled back before the light. And then, like I was drawn to the sound of the festival, I came out of the cabin and started walking unsteadily in the direction of the shrine. There was no chance I'd make it all the way to the “school” now. I'd never have anything to do with the place in my whole life. Anyway, even if I went back like this, Chigusa would know that I'd gone out. But now I wanted to see her, even if she was angry with me. Like a moth attracted to a light, I walked, drawn towards the cheerful sounds and the glow of the paper lanterns.

By the time I'd finally reached the big red torii archway, stars had started to appear in the sky. On the path to the shrine, there was a crowd of people that I hadn't seen until then, bustling everywhere, but I pushed my legs onward with my longing for Chigusa. In the bright glow of the paper lanterns, I looked down, pressing forward with my face hidden in the dark. All of these people - where on earth had they come from, what were they doing? The wonderful smells from the food stalls tickled my nose, and my stomach growled, which reminded me that I hadn’t eaten anything since morning.

Walking unsteadily, I was swept away by the wave of people. Their conversations noisily flew through the air around me, but Chigusa had raised me to speak only in standard Japanese, so I had no idea what they were saying in their accents. Eventually, I could hear the drums and flutes gradually getting closer and closer, and I finally reached a building with a stage and a big thatched straw roof.

In the dark grounds of the shrine, away from the rows of food stalls, only the stage was dimly lit up. A crowd had built up, drawn by the faint light. Kids and adults, craning their necks and looking up, waited to see something there in the bright space. What was starting? What were they so eager to see? A little curious, I ducked between the people and crept out to just in front of the stage. The stage was at about the level of my chest, and the border inside and out was marked by a low railing. When I looked up at the ceiling, there were a number of leafy branches and multi-coloured paper fuda dangling and fluttering up there. By the bustling of the place, I had a feeling that whatever was coming would be something fun. All of the adults in the back left hand corner of the stage, dressed in matching dark blue happi coats, banged their large drums and small drums, and played their flutes. This was like I had felt when I'd looked at my picture books. On the stage, separated by the railing, it seemed like there was a whole world there, different from the world I was in.

Eventually the musicians stopped, and the curtain covering the back of the stage was turned aside, and an adult man in an all-white costume, wearing a black hat, appeared. I wasn’t used to hearing the area’s dialect, or maybe they were using obsolete words, but the white-clad man yelled some spell-like words that I didn’t understand and disappeared back to the other side of the curtain. While he was reciting the “spell”, I just barely managed to make out him introducing himself with the name, “Susano”.

* * *

The curtain opened again, and this time a girl about my own height appeared.

I involuntarily gasped out loud at her beautiful appearance. She wore the same all-white clothes as the man from earlier. Lifting the light garments she wore, her face hidden, she advanced in a slow walk. This mysteriousness; I felt the excitement running through the people around me. She went to the centre of the stage, pretending not to see us, and sat. In the deathly silence, the music started again. The flutes whistled jauntily, adding to the crashing and ringing of the small drums. Every so often, the pounding of the big drums would vibrate pleasantly in time with my heartbeat. The girl shook and rang a tree branch and a many-belled handbell she had in her hands, and after performing the “two bows, two claps, one bow” ritual, she stood up. When she turned to face us, fluttering her sheer sleeves, she revealed her white face that had been hidden until that moment.


For an instant, every sound disappeared from my ears. I had the feeling of disappearing. This was the sensation of my legs failing and my soul seeming to have left my body; the sensation I'd first felt when I'd seen the blue sky stretching out to the foot of the distant mountain. The girl's skin was so white that it seemed hard to tell where it and her clothes met, and in the dim orange light, she alone seemed to be almost glowing white. My skin was also white, but in an unhealthy, pallid way from too many days without seeing the sun, not the divine whiteness that she had, like she was wearing the light itself. Most awe-inspiring of all was the red lipstick on her tightly-pressed lips, which fascinated me like it was fresh blood. She seemed to be the same age as me, but the makeup didn't look garish and overdone; maybe because her dark round irises were shining just as much as the intense colour of the lipstick. The bridge of her nose between her eyes was like it was sculpted. This doll-like girl really existed. Her fluttering, dancing form overwrote the storybook princess that I had seen and yearned for so many times. Then, suddenly, the words hurled at me by the boys in the woods passed me by.

“Grot!”

“Ugly!”

“Monster!”

How much had I been taught in this one day? In this world was the “inside” and the “outside”, and simultaneously, there was “heaven” and “earth”. The girl dancing on the other side of the dividing rail, apparently my own age, was someone from the “outside”, and someone from “heaven”. But me, I was-

“She's a cutie!” “Very mature!” The voices around me filtered through. I didn't know these terms either, but the words were clearly praising her dance. Suddenly, in my chest, I felt an emotion I'd never felt before flooding it, almost making me feel sick; it was like a pitch-black, stagnant liquid was filling my heart. It was like some kind of deep longing. It was a feeling that you'd call “envy” or “jealousy”, but I didn't know words like that yet. The white maiden twirled from left to right and back again, gracefully circling the stage as she rung the bell, and she occasionally stamped her feet in time with the drums. I felt a strange uplifting feeling at the repetitive movements. While I excitedly thought, “she's beautiful”, I felt a sharp sensation, like a needle was being threaded in and out of my heart.

“The Akeiwaaaa Kaguraaaa Show: 'The Sunred Mikooooo'!”

Right as she stopped dancing, the man striking the drum sung that out. The applause that rang out around me was louder than before. Were their deeper emotions being awoken by the girl's dancing? It seemed to me like I should look for Chigusa somewhere else soon, and think about how to apologise for running away, but my eyes caught on the curtain the girl had passed through and no matter what I did, I couldn't tear my body away. I checked that the next show was all that was left, and decided to leave after that. Then, even if I spent my whole life shutting myself away in the house, I wouldn't mind it. Soon, the sounds of drums and flutes rang out again, signalling the start of a show.

It was the first play I ever saw.

While the drums pounded out their eerie beat, a woman in a kimono appeared from out of the other side of the curtain, hiding her face with a piece of black cloth she was holding up. But occasionally, peeking out from behind the cloth, I saw sharp fangs in a gaping mouth, and golden eyes glaring balefully. It was a mask set in an angry oni face. She stepped forward with creeping movements, and she raised her face and slowly glared around. Then, the woman went toward a small table in the centre of the stage and sat, and started waving a leafy tree branch fastened with white paper decorations. A round mirror and a dish full of fine red powder had been placed on the table. Her movements resembled the girl's from earlier, but the top half of her body shook madly, and she had such an air of ominousness that you could practically hear the curses spewing from her split mouth. Her shaking gradually grew bigger, and she pounded her feet heavily and furiously danced. I locked up with fear at the fierceness of her movements, like she was leaping out at me, even though I knew it was just a performance.

As I stood there, struck dumb by the mad dance, the woman suddenly stopped and, while she glared down at everybody, rattled off some words. It was phrased like a curse, and I could barely make out a few angry expressions, like “vengeful” and “strike with disaster”.
 
After the woman left the stage, the next thing to appear out from behind the curtain was the beautiful girl and the man who had called himself “Susano”, changed into an old-fashioned costume, from the earlier show. In contrast to the oni-like woman, the girl was hiding her face with a white cloth. Nevertheless, my eyes were glued to those sweet movements.

A conversation between the pair unfolded with words like the spell from before. Maybe my ears had gotten slightly used to it, so I could make out some words. The words of Susano were, “She has already destroyed lives, even down to the little children” “She who curses us hides her heart away on Shiranagayama” and the girl's words were “I am going to visit the mountain”. According to what they said, people were dying from the curses of a woman, so the girl was going to the mountain where the woman lived to put a stop to it. I remembered the word “Shiranagayama”. Back when I'd looked at the map of Akeiwa, there was a mountain called “Shiranagayama”, located right behind the house we lived in. It felt like the story was flowing into the world I lived in, and a shiver ran up my spine.

The girl entered this “Shiranagayama”, ignoring “Susaso's” attempts to stop her. Everyone there gazed, enraptured, at that graceful bearing, elegantly dancing and making her way to the “mountain”.

The beat of the drum changed, and it again boomed out a strange sound. When the curtain at the back of the stage was opened, numerous white threads were hanging down, and the frightening woman appeared in the darkness between the threads. The mask was different from before. I almost screamed at its expression as it passed through the dangled threads. The sharp horns on its head had grown, and piles of wrinkles ran down between its brows. Like it was cursing anyone it could find, its huge eyes blazed with light. In its much wider and larger mouth, golden fangs glittered, and its lips were painted a deep red. Her clothes, too, were dyed a red like the colour of hellfire, and the shape of a snake had been embroidered on the back. The woman was no longer human; she had truly become an oni. But for the woman to become something like this, what did she hate so much?

The girl confronting the woman didn't look frightened, and she called out “The gods will not forgive you”, while determinedly trying to press a warning onto the oni woman. The oni roughly shook her hair out and rushed to attack her, but in an instant, the girl picked up the mirror from the table and pointed it at the her.
      
“You are already the same as a terrifying oni, I call forth your face! You will look upon it!”

The oni stopped. She drew back, turning her eyes away from the mirror, and held her face and wept.

There was something about it. I felt overwhelmed.

Until then, I'd felt excited while I'd watched the girl facing up against the oni woman. But the woman with “the face of a terrifying oni” who had peered into the mirror - she sadly wept. The word “monster” once again bounced over and over inside my mind. It felt like that mirror could have been meant for me. I could understand the oni woman's sorrow. The oni woman… was me.

The crowd around me gasped and pulled faces, like they were actually worried about the brave young maiden. Every single one of them supported her. But I couldn't be like them. My heart sympathised with the sinister, murderous oni woman, not the brave young maiden. You poor oni, what do you want to do to that girl? If it were me - if I were you, I'd-

The moment the oni woman's claws raked the beautiful girl's body, it felt like my heart was filled with a sweet feeling, like a new spring. Although I felt guilty that it was wrong, I couldn't help being entranced by the sweetness of that nectar.

The oni woman crept up beside the fallen girl. The voices around me spill out with “Aaaahhhs”. With a finger, the oni woman rubbed the red powder from the dish on the table on her lips. And when she embraced the girl's body, staring at her face like was something precious to her, she slowly moved in as if to kiss her. But right as their lips made contact, she covered it with a red sleeve.

In my chest, I felt a throbbing sensation. It was like the opening of a flower that wasn't supposed to open. Sickeningly, it felt so pleasant at the same time. My mouth flooded with saliva, and I washed it down my throat. It felt like I knew why. What the oni woman had done had shown the way inside me to the pleasant feeling.

But then, the story entered its confusing conclusion. The oni woman suddenly started struggling in pain, and still holding the girl, she fell and disappeared behind the curtain. I was bewildered, not following along with the sudden turn.

After a while, while the drums and the flutes rang out, the oni woman crawled out painfully from underneath the curtain. Her hand, trembling fitfully and reaching out like it was looking for help, suddenly stiffened and then flopped to the ground. When it did, the clamoring drums and flutes changed their tune, and started playing loosely, gracefully, like when the girl had danced at the beginning. I'd thought she'd died, but the oni woman slowly stood up, for some reason. I noticed that she was shorter than she had seemed before.

She held up the sleeves of her trailing red bridal kimono, with its entwining snake embroidery, and covered the mask with them. Then, after she'd danced to the left and to the to right, she took her sleeves away. There, there was not the terrifying mask of an oni, but a beautifully sweet human face. She was posing as the oni, but behind it, she had changed into the girl.

While I processed this, the girl started crooning these lines.

“If the spirit of the woman Naga is not appeased,
It changes to the spirit of the woman Saku,
Even with the passing of many moons.
A loathsome child of the Fire Horse
Will be used to torment you by the hatred of Naga.
Never ever ever can you forget,
Never ever ever can you forget.”

Eventually, holding out the mirror that had been put on the table, she unveiled an even more graceful dance.

The drums and flutes were playing a cheerful melody. Maybe it was clashing with the red of her kimono, but the colour of the her lips glistened nauseatingly. The girl bowed a second time during the applause and the busy playing of the band, and then left through the curtain. The incomprehensibility of the final turn left me feeling uncertain, and I just stood where I was. As the satisfied audience members here and there drained out, “Susano” again appeared on the stage.

“This was an old story, so some parts of it were probably a bit hard to understand. I can explain it for you in simpler terms.”

This was probably addressed to the people who had came from outside the village to see the show; he dropped his accent and started to speak in standard Japanese.

“It all started when an ugly woman called “Onaga” began casting spells on the people of the village. Living all alone at the peak of Shiranagayama, she was jealous of the townspeople with their bustling lives. Onaga's magic made the women of the town go mad, and there were frequent cases of them killings their own husbands and children. One beautiful girl took action to quell the wrath of the terrible mountain woman. Her name was “Osaku”. Osaku served the gods as a miko, and because of the sense of justice she had, she went to Shiranagayama, ignoring the pleas of the townspeople to stop. Waiting for her on the mountain was Onaga, who had transformed into an oni for her many sins. Osaku told Onaga that her sins had turned her into an oni, and she showed her with a mirror. But despite that, Onaga had not changed her ways, and Onaga attacked her… in the end, she killed Osaku. Onaga then stole a kiss from the dying Osaku. She had applied a red magic powder called “Sunred”, so she could suck Osaku's spirit from her lips. But what happened then may surprise a lot of you.”

I listened with rapt attention.

“Onaga started struggling to breath, in agony. She had meant to suck up Osaku's soul, but actually, the heart of the pure Osaku flowed into Onaga. Onaga's evil spirit was quelled, and Osaku was brought back to life in the body of Onaga.”

“So that's what it was,” I thought, but for some reason, the feeling that something was off still hadn't left me.

“Osaku, as the village miko, created the dance of the kagura as an offering to keep Onaga's spirit at rest eternally. This is said to be the origin of the “The Sunred Miko”, Akeiwa's kagura, that has been passed down for over 500 years.”

“Susano” continued to talk, but as the crowd that gave me privacy dwindled, I got nervous about whether I'd stay unnoticed, since all the children I had seen here had been with adults. Yes, I had to hurry up and look for Chigusa. While I listened to “Susano's” explanation, I turned little by little to look at the path behind me.

“The song recited by Osaku at the end of the show has been passed down, unchanged, since long ago. Within the song is warning to future generations about Onaga's curse.”

The audience members who had gone were squirming for the torii as a single shadowy mass on the lantern-lit path, but within the mass, a single person was facing my way, stiff and unmoving, and I automatically called out.

“Chigusa!”

At that moment, more than fear at being scolded, more than relief to see her, the emotion I was overwhelmed with was guilt, and I found myself unable to move. I heard “Susano's” voice from further behind me. “Since Japan's ancient past, girls born in the Year of the Fire Horse are said to shorten their husbands' lives and bring disaster. In Akeiwa, that is taught together with Onaga's curse: 'If a baby with an ugly face is born in the Year of the Fire Horse, it will bring disaster to the village – so kill it, at once.'”

For some reason, the words “ugly” and “kill” echoed deep inside my eardrums. More importantly, why didn't Chigusa come to me? When I looked closely at her, she seemed to have a frightened expression. Around me, the people who had stayed to listen were still dwindling, one by one.

“Come to think of it, Namino-chan, who played the miko earlier, was born right in the Year of the Fire Horse.”

“Namino” seemed to be the girl's name.

Chigusa, still rigid as a board, moved her mouth slightly and seemed to be trying to say something I couldn't hear. What on earth was she trying to say? What was she afraid of? An overwhelming anxiety came over me.

And from behind me, “Susano's” voice informed me of a certain fact.

“It was twelve years ago. The birth of little Namino-chan made it a really happy occasion.”

One by one, I turned each word over in my mind as they caught in my ear. The Year of the Fire Horse twelve years ago. Ugly oni woman. Baby with an ugly face. Namino, born twelve years ago. Twelve years ago-? That was the year I was born, wasn't it?

Like the points of a constellation, those thoughts linked up and started forming a horrible shape.

Trying not to look at the stage, I nervously left. And just before I made it to the path, I impatiently broke into a run with my full strength. I pushed through people, even avoiding Chigusa, like I was running away from something. My legs were furiously trembling, but something dragged my body along regardless, and I ran as fast as I could towards our dreaded house. I didn't know whether “Susano” had seen my face or not. I had no idea what would happen if my face was seen, but I was just afraid, so afraid, and I ran without looking back.

As I ran, I could imagine what Chigusa, unmoving, had been trying to say to me earlier.

“Don't listen!”

That was what she'd wanted to say.


* * *

“No, my grandchild- Namino says she saw her. She says even at school, the other children are gossiping.”

The old woman sitting across her proceeded to talk, every so often watching for Chigusa's expression.

“Gossiping?”

“That they saw a monster child.”

“And that rumour has you thinking that Kadzura-san's dead child is alive… isn't that a wild conclusion to jump to?”

Chigusa had been called by Tsuki Sasae and invited to the Tsuki household. She'd had a pretty good idea what she would be asked before she came, but the Tsuki residence had been waiting for her with a much weightier, stranger atmosphere than she'd predicted. Just like the day of Izana's birth, the day Kadzura had died, there were several pairs of shoes from other visitors sloppily left on the floor of the pit, and all of the shouji doors were pulled closed. She passed by them into a single room, but from several of the adjoining rooms it, she could sense people listening carefully from the other side of the shouji, and she was unable to relax. Back on that day, the intimidating presence of all these invisible people had probably been directed at Kadzura, and now it was directed at her. Feeling like a tiny animal that had strayed into the nest of its natural predator, Chigusa wanted to flee right then, if she could have.

“Namino drew a picture of the child she saw; it looked just like it.”

Was this really all she had, the testimony of a child? No, that wouldn't be it. Chigusa was starting to get an idea of who the witnesses, and other visitors in the house, were.

“Let's say it is Kadzura-san's child – why did you call me?”

“Because you said it died.”

Chigusa managed to stop her voice from shaking.

“It died in the fire, I'm sure of that.”

“And yet, not a single bone from a baby was found.”

“It was a little baby… It's a sad fact, but they probably burned up in the fire. I said so even at the time.”

“… When Kadzura's child was born, the only outsider there was you.”

That word, “outsider”. It didn't simply mean she wasn't a member of the Tsuki family; Chigusa couldn't help feeling there was another implication in it. Even though she'd lived there for decades since marrying her husband, even though she'd taken the Hirasaka name, she would always be an “outsider” to the Tsukis - no, to everyone in Akeiwa. Chigusa was afraid of being shunned. She had come to know how horrible it was to be alone and isolated in this town, closed off to the outside world even at its best, without even ten homes to its name any longer. Once or twice during her time living there, she had seen people who were shunned by the village for one reason or another. Outside of outbreaks of fire and funerals, they had basically had all ties to them cut by the village. Although Chigusa had her husband's inheritance, to get help with everyday life, she made a living by consorting with the villagers. She had no relatives either within or outside the village, so if she didn't do it, she wouldn't be able to survive.

“So you're suspicious about whether I kept Kadzura's baby alive, aren't you?”

“We all know you're a good person. That's why we're suspicious. So you probably kept the baby alive, and you're probably raising it – that's what I think. What we all think.”

“Ma'am, I came from outside the village, but I'm no longer an outsider. Tell me who this “we all” is.”

“...”

In that long moment of silence, Chigusa heard rustling sounds from behind the shouji behind her. It sounded like someone re-crossing their legs, or a mouse's scampering.

“They say the monster child was wearing a light-brown coat, just like a coat you have...”

Reflexively, she looked down. Even though it was cold enough for frost to form on the ground, a damp sweat rolled down her back. A light-brown coat… right, with Izana wearing something she herself had often worn years ago, the inhabitants of such a small village were bound to recognise it. Just counting the village, she was the only one who seemed to wear a beige overcoat like that. But considering the number of visitors from neighbouring towns on the day, it was less suspicious. Just from a coat, they couldn't decide that the ugly child at the festival had been Kadzura's, or that Chigusa had raised her. She lifted her head.

“If you go to the city or any other village, you'll see as many light-brown coats as you like, you know. …Kadzura's child died along with her in that fire, I'm sure of it. And anyway, this might be a cold way to put it, but… it's not like I'd have felt obligated to raise someone else's baby.”

The old woman's eyes stared straight ahead, and she raised her voice and called out to someone. Sasae sighed deeply, and examined Chigusa's expression even more. Her mistrust seemed to be wavering. But…

“Chigusa-san, you once lost a child, I believe.”

She got goosebumps all over her. How? How did this old woman know about that? She had never told anyone since she'd come to Akeiwa. Without waiting for the shocked Chigusa's next words, Sasae continued to speak.

“I'm sorry, but they're looking through your house right now. If there's nothing, you'll have my sincerest apologies.”

* * *

No children were found in the house. While she was relieved at this, Chigusa stood in blank shock by herself as she looked at her home, laid to waste like it had been ransacked. They seemed to be doing it as they searched for evidence of a child being raised, but what they found was a small box filled up with a full set of toys and dummies – mementos from a child Chigusa herself had once had and raised.

“She couldn't have raised a kid the same age as Namino like this.”

“Really doesn't look like it. I guess she could still be hiding it...”

When Chigusa came home, the two older Tsuki sons were pawing at the box in front of the wardrobe and talking like that. With their jobs apparently finished, when they all saw Chigusa's face, they shut up and left. There were five, maybe six of them. Chigusa knew all their faces; they were men from the Tsuki and Susano families. As Chigusa had predicted, the shoes in the Tsuki house had belonged to members of the Susano family. The Susanos were the richest family in the village, in charge of regulations and events, and at the moment, they were the most powerful family lineage in the village. And behind the Susanos were the Tsukis, who had once been village heads. When she'd quickly made it home and saw the Susanos in front of the entrance, she knew it wasn't just the Tsukis, but the entire village, that believed Chigusa was suspicious. The wardrobes and storage rooms, her late husband's clinic, under the floorboards, inside the ceiling; they had all been roughly searched and left in disarray by their hands. Chigusa didn't understand their bizarre behaviour or the bizarre legend that motivated them at all. And she suspected that her own treatment as an outsider was because of her own relative normalcy. She definitely hadn't been treated like this until she had come here. They'd seemed willing to kill the girl, even now.

She had been right to imagine the worst-case scenario and hide Izana away from the house.

* * *

“Izana, you must be cold. Sorry for being late...”

“...”

There was still light, but the sun was going down and within the small cabin, it was filled with deep black shadows. Izana was certainly in the darkness, but she didn't reply.

“Let's go back the house for now, Izana.”

“I'm okay. I'm here. Anyway, we decided that I'd live here.”

“But it's so cold; I didn't say you had to live here so soon. How about we just get you accustomed to it a bit at a time?”

“Didn't you say those scary people would come looking for me?”

“Izana...”

The mountain rose, low but densely, over the back of the Hirasaka residence. Because nobody had been on the road up here in years, it had come to be little more than an animal trail, covered with grass and ivy. Nobody had been because the ground here was a place feared by the villagers of Akeiwa, more than anything else. This place was once the Shiranagayama where the woman who had turned into an oni had dwelled. Izana was hidden in a building close to the mountain's peak.

“Izana, please, listen to me. When the sun goes down, it'll get even colder!”

“No. Even if it gets cold or you leave me by myself, I'll be okay. And I'm not afraid of the dark!”

She had rarely been disobedient before, but now she was going so far as refuse to come home; this was how terrified she was by the knowledge that there were people who didn't want her alive.

“… I understand. So I'll stay tonight with you, too. Is that alright?”

”...”

Chigusa took her lack of reply as agreement.

* * *

Chigusa, not sleeping, looked at Izana's sleeping face up-close. Moonlight shined through the doorway, knitted with a fine grid pattern. During the day she had swept out the dust and cobwebs, but on the futon, she nevertheless felt the gritty sensation of sand that had seeped in from somewhere. Occasionally when the wind blew, the doorway made a loud clattering.

On the moonless nights, how deep in the dark would it be here?

On the nights of howling rain, how afraid would the noises and quaking make her?

She was trying to make such a small child live in a place like this. Though it was to protect Izana's life, it felt to Chigusa like her sense of common decency was being repainted over in Akeiwa's abnormal colours.

In any case, how long had this building been here? It seemed not have been maintained in a long time, but the walls and roof were undamaged, and solidly built. The only damage was that the shouji paper in the doorway had decayed away, so she had re-papered it. By the colour of the wood, she could guess that it was considerably old, but it felt new to her compared to the era of the oni woman. The cabin was constructed like a Shinto shrine, but rather than there being a shintai to worship at, it was decorated only with an old letter in a wooden frame. And the strangest thing was that in the centre of this building that people weren't supposed to be going to, there was a sunken hearth.

She had thought of hiding Izana here because she had remembered her husband, when he was still alive, mentioning a building at the top of the mountain. He'd said that apparently, the Hirasaka house at the foot of the mountain had lost its former role as a watchtower for keeping trespassers off the mountain. Now that she thought about it, during the short time she was married, the elderly of the village had called her husband “Mr. Watchtower”.

From the moment she had kept Izana alive, she was already breaking the taboo. Aft this point, being on the mountain was nothing to her. No, it would be ridiculous of her to follow a pointless tradition like that. But why had she kept this child alive and raised her, to the point of breaking their rules and risking being ostracised?

“Chigusa-san, you once lost a child, I believe.”

The words that the old Tsuki woman had said in the day stuck in her mind. When she learned about the connection the Tsukis had with the Susanos, Chigusa easily guessed how she had known that. The second Susano son worked at a prefectural government office; using that connection, maybe they had looked into her personal files, under the table? No, was that really likely? But it didn't really matter anymore. Those words had cut right to the heart of what even she herself had been trying not to think about.

“Sugina...”

She called the name of her lost child. Her voice faded away in the empty darkness. The little girl she had had in her first marriage, when she still lived in Tokyo. Her child that had died, buried under rubble in the bombing raid.

It was ironic. Even though she'd said that she wanted to get away from Tokyo to forget what had happened to her child; even though she'd ran away from the past and came here. Now, thirty years later, she was equating Sugina with Izana, who neither looked nor sounded like her, and trying to protect her in place of the child she hadn't protected. To fill the hollowness in her heart.  

Chigusa sat up and looked down at the girl breathing lightly in her sleep. Empty sentiment with no release ate away at her rationality. Her outstretched hands had grasped the girl's thin neck.

“After all, I can't protect this girl. Even if I let her live in the heat of the moment, she'll never be happy. This child isn't Sugina. This child isn't my child.”
 
She tried to put some force into her thumbs, crossed over the girl's throat. But then, the little throat under her thumbs trembled and her voice spoke. 

“Chigusa...”

That voice, calling out Chigusa's name, not her mother's nor anybody else's names, in the middle of a tired sleep, made the strength drain from all of her fingers and tears brim in her eyes. To Chigusa, whether she needed Izana or not didn't matter anymore. Izana was forcing herself to live in a place like this, wanting to live on, and she had only ever needed Chigusa to live before.

“Izana...”

From her reaction to the body she gently hugged, Chigusa was surprised at how big she had gotten. The girl had grown up so much as she had raised her. On that rainy day, the day that Tsuki Kadzura had died, her gravest sin was being unable to kill her back then.

“Kadzura-san… I envy you. All you had to do was protect her life and die. You left me with taking care of all of the pain that came afterwards.”

She didn't know who her flowing tears were for.

She didn't know if her affection for the warmth of the child in her arms was the feeling of a parent or not.

Chapter 3 - Shiranagayama (Tall Pale Mountain)

In the storms and warmth of spring, the heart almosts decay.
In the intensity and heat of summer, the heart almost burns and blisters.
Autumn is loneliness and the harvest. It seems like the heart has gone away.
Winter is the chill of death. Please, it'll kill my heart for me, won't it?


When I'd lived in the house, I hadn't know that the seasons could be so richly expressive. As the seasons came around, again and again, they each had their ways of toughening me up, both in body and in mind. They had their temperatures, the wind and the rain, the constant bugs, and the feeling in the air of each season. Nature was so beautiful that it transfixed me, but at the same time, so horrible that it made me shudder. My time inside the house had been a nice one. While I was shut away and ignorant, the world had been kind to me. But I had opened the door out with my own hand.

Avoiding the early-summer sunlight, I threw myself down onto the shady grass of a tree. The plants stained the kimono I always wore, but I didn't care. The pretty fabric and design didn't suit me. The obi haphazardly fastened, I carelessly laid on the dirt and dust; the colour was totally faded completely faded by the sun, and all the gold thread of the embroidery had come undone. I scratched at my long hair, which I'd left to grow, and combed out dandruff and the leaves and bugs that had caught in my tangles. I brushed them away and glared up at the blue sky. All of a sudden, I picked up the smell of earth and grass getting stronger. It was a sign rain was on the way.

Was I really human? Wearing something barely resembling clothing, and hideously, filthily, living in fear of other people - was I really fit to call myself a human being? But I didn't imagine I wanted to end up like an animal or a bug. That girl Namino, playing the miko - if I could be reborn, I'd like to be like her. From the moment I saw it five years ago until even now, Namino dancing was always the most beautiful thing in the world to me. It was all because of envy, hatred, and spite that I had managed to live eighteen years, even in my current situation, without killing myself or going mad.

The sky was still a dull-looking blue, but far away, lightning sounded. Standing up, I hurried to the cabin that was my home. When I opened the door, in the six-tatami-sized room were a few day-to-day supplies, a bed, and a mountain of randomly-piled books. There were no windows, and because of the dimness despite the time of day, I switched on the torch that hung from the ceiling by a string. Before long, the rain arrived, making a piercing pattering noise. When I'd first started living here, even the sound of rain this light frightened me. And not just the sound of rain; all of the sounds scared me, and at night, I was even frightened by the silence. But I didn't tell Chigusa how scared I was. As I got used to it, my fear turned into irritation. Who the hell's fault was it that this was the only way I could live? While I thought about nothing but that, I got taller and my body gradually grew closer to being one of an adult's. I'd already had my first period long ago, obviously, but I felt like I hadn't completely become a woman or an adult.

Lying down on the bed, I smelled the rain. It was faintly mixed with the odour of mould. Picking up the book at my bedside, I started reading from the page I'd left the bookmark. To me, the lives of other people in books seemed cruel, and at the same time so sweet. The time I spent immersed in the story, imagining I was someone else, was my favourite way to relax. But this time, unable to settle down, I immediately shut the book.

Chigusa hadn't come today. At least once a week she brought me food and a change of clothes, but a week and three days had already passed since her last visit. Grabbing the watch I kept at my bedside, I checked the position of the hands. Chigusa had given it to me for my birthday. The golden frame on the band of thin red leather was beautiful. It seemed like a complete mismatch to wear that elegant delicate beauty with my appearance, so I didn't wear it. The hands pointed at one fifty. I wonder if I should go down to the house, if it still wasn't dark by the time the rain stopped. I didn't want to go down there if I could help it. No matter how tough life was in the cabin, the chance of running across someone scared me terribly. That was why I rejected even going back to the house I used to live in as being too reckless. I put Chigusa to a lot of trouble, making her do the trip on the mountain road from the mansion to the cabin and back, bringing my things, but I continued to rely on her kindness. But this time, I had a bad feeling. There had been times before when persistent bad weather had kept her from appearing for longer than a week, but I had an ominous suspicion that it was different this time.

After three o'clock, the rain passed to the other side of the mountain and the sunshine started shining again on the wet grass and earth. A cool wind, filled with moisture, gently stroked my cheeks when I opened the door, and the raindrops and dew glittered like beads of glass catching the sun. It felt far too nice on my eyes, ears, and skin, raising my anxiety all the more.

I put on my gumboots for the slippery mud and pushed my way through the grass that had gotten tall in the last few days. For the first time in who knew how many months, I was going down this path. Tree branches and ivy, not just grass, blocked my path, like they were trying to stop me from going to the world of humans. With every step, they stretched their tendrils into my mind and tried entangling my vital resolve to keep moving forward. Suddenly, I thought about what the people of the village would think when they saw how I looked. Could they see me as a human being, just like them? Since there wasn't a mirror in the cabin, I couldn't get an exact idea of my own full-length impression. Come to think of it, female characters that looked like me hadn't appeared before in any of the novels I'd read.


After a little while, from the narrow path following the surface of the mountain, I started to see the dark-blue roof on the far side of the woods. Absently scratching at my mosquito bites, I ran down the forest path at a rapid pace.

The first thing I saw when I entered the back garden was a shadow wriggling and crawling on all fours in a dim tatami-floored room, behind a glass door overlooking the hallway.

“Chigusa...”

Chigusa. It was Chigusa. She was trying to get close to the glass door, but not appearing to notice me, she groped a hand around on the tatami; it seemed like she was searching for something.

In recent years, Chigusa's eyesight had been suffering. I'd heard Chigusa herself say that she might completely lose her eyesight soon, but seeing her for myself fallen into that condition, I couldn't move. Chigusa crawled from the mat into the hallway, then the short distance to the glass door, completely unaware that I was right in front of her eyes. Hadn't it been the week before last that she'd jokingly said, in her usual gentle tone, “I'll have to practice climbing up the mountain with a blindfold, won't I?”. Maybe she'd said it because she'd had a premonition. But this was no time to be stay stuck where I was. I had to help Chigusa find whatever she was trying to discover in the dark. I put my hand on the handle of the glass door.

But,

“Ma'am, where are you?”

At the sudden voice, I instantly crouched and hid.

“Kin-chan, sorry. I'm here.”

The person called “Kin-chan” made a sound and rushed to Chigusa's side. When I took a timid peek, I saw a nervously-behaving boy crouched at Chigusa's side, maybe about ten years old. Although he didn't notice me, and although he was a child, my heart pounded heavily, since it had been five years since I'd been anywhere near someone besides Chigusa. Fear and confusion played havoc with my thinking, and my limbs were paralyzed, unable to move. Eventually, the boy grabbed an old tin of foreign-made cookies that had been placed in the corner of the room and handed it to Chigusa. That tin, I was sure, was where Chigusa put her sewing tools.

“Thank you, Kin-chan.”

“… No, it was nothing.”

And after that, the boy attentively asked for tasks from Chigusa, and assisted her, who was moving briskly and frowning. Unable to tear myself away from the spot for some reason, even after the night's darkness fell outside, Chigusa and the boy moved some kind of serving table together, and I watched the worrying sight of them preparing dinner. I didn't know who the boy was, his relation to Chigusa, his situation, or anything about him, but the only thing I did know was that he seemed to be living together with Chigusa and helping her with everyday life. The wonderful smell of dinner reached me. I could hear Chigusa laughing. I'd thought I came here out of worry, but still incapable of even calling out a few words to Chigusa, I quietly cried in shadow of the storm shutter. As close as I could be to her, the boy could move even closer. Until then, I'd felt that everything had been stolen from me from birth, but more than a home, more than my freedom of movement, this was the hardest thing to bear. I suppose it was also a childish jealousy that Chigusa kindness was aimed at something that wasn't me. But even more than that, it made me realise that I didn't even have the right to help the one who'd helped me, and I cried at my own wretchedness.

Come to think of it, after the festival five years ago, our relationship had changed in some way. She hadn't told me off for running away that day. But, her eyes looked like they pitied me more than they used to, and she would handle me just like she was touching something fragile. On my part, I pressed questions about my birth, my mother, and about Akeiwa's awful folktale to Chigusa, who didn't begrudge me for the trouble. At first, she dodged the question, saying “We'll talk when you're older”, but I pressed her almost everyday and finally, she did talk. The superstition about the Year of the Fire Horse, the Tsuki family and my mother, my mother's suicide, and about how I was thought to have died along with my mother, that being how I had stayed alive.

Hearing it, for a time I even hated Chigusa. “It would have been better if they'd killed me.” “As I am, why did you save me?” I didn't say them out loud, but Chigusa noticed the loose seams in my feelings, and as if to patch it, she treated me with with nothing but kindness.

She was a kind person who delicately parsed out the feelings of an emotionally inhibited person like me, and all I did was impose on her, unable to do a single thing to help her out. It was truly sad and pathetic; I stood there motionlessly until all the lights of the house went out. My tears and nose still ran, grossly.

Two days after that, on a clear afternoon, Chigusa came to the cabin I lived in. It seemed she had climbed the mountain path while the boy helped her. I was intensely disturbed by the presence of the stranger I sensed outside.

“There's a boy who's been helping me. He wants to meet you, too.”

Though I stammered, I replied to Chigusa's words.

“I- I don't like someone else knowing about this place...”

“I'm sure we'll be okay with this boy. He's become really attached to me. Besides, it's going to get harder for me to come up here from now on. I'm planning to have him carry your things here now.”

“In that case, I'll go to the house and pick it up myself. We can't trust a stranger...”

Sympathising with my unease - no, maybe she even saw past it to my jealousy for the boy - she replied soothingly.

“This boy has nowhere to go either. He has a family, but he hasn't had a place made for him there. So I asked for him to come and look after my affairs for me.”

“Where's the boy from…?”

There was a short pause.

“... He's a child of the Susano family. His name's Susano Kingo.”

Susano. I shivered with goosebumps. It was the same name as that man who I had heard about the Fire Horse superstition from on the day of the festival, and of that family that had torn up Chigusa's home looking for me. Why was she showing someone from a family like that the mountain and she saying she wanted to have him meet me? Not understanding what she was thinking, I got annoyed. 

“It was slow to start with, but we've been talking about you.”

“... And what did you talk about? My ugliness? About how I've got people who wanted me never born?”

Chigusa made a pained face. Although I hadn't really wanted to make her sad or anything, I'd let my annoyance spill from my tongue without thinking. I loathed myself like this. If only I hadn't been born, I thought from the bottom of my heart, more than anyone ever had.

“We talked about how you were important family to me, about how he could understand the sorrow of loneliness.”

“But this boy has a family, apparently.”

“Yes... But, his father – Kingo's a child from another woman, not his wife. Last month, his mother left him with the Susano family and went away somewhere. He's been completely withdrawing into himself from the shame; he's an introverted child, like you.”

“...”

I looked all over myself and sniffed the smell on and underneath my clothes. With my own nose, I couldn't tell whether I smelled or not.

“Am I okay like this…?”

Hearing the question and understanding that I was worried about meeting the “Kingo” boy, Chigusa's expression brightened.

“If you're worried about how you are, we can do it another time?”

“No… now's fine.”

Without Chigusa here now, I very much doubted I'd have the courage to meet a stranger. Besides, if we were going to be meeting again in the future, I should probably be the way I normally looked, I thought. But still, meeting a stranger scared me all the same: what would he think, what would he say, what kinds of faces would he make? The faces and words of the children I'd encountered when I'd escaped outside five years ago popped back into my mind.

“Then, you keep reading!”

I caught Chigusa's sleeve right as she was trying to get up.

“It's just, um, wait...”

Chigusa's failing vision only followed the direction of the light now, so naturally she didn't look at my eyes. But still noticing the slight tremble in my voice, she sat back down on the spot. I knew she was using everything besides her eyes, desperately trying to feel my anger and anxiety. When I put my forehead to Chigusa's chest, she gently hugged my head of dishevelled, frizzy hair. She was letting me know, without even having to meet my eyes or words, that it was going to be okay.

“Ms. Hirasaka! Ms. Hirasaka!”

From outside the cabin, the boy's voice called out. Chigusa let go of me and opened the door. When I came to my senses, the sun had already slightly dipped, and the cicadas were chirping in sorrowful chirps.

“Ma'am, if it gets too dark, it'll be hard going home!”

“Yes, thank you.”

While I tied up my long hair behind me, I listened to the conversation outside between Chigusa and the boy. So close to the summer solstice, he hadn't thought it would get dark so quickly, but he had probably gotten anxious being kept waiting this whole time by himself. He was much more of a child than I was.

I was a little relieved, but I remembered that Chigusa had said “It might be safe to go down the mountain now,” to me a few times. Surely there was no way they'd kill a child of my age. But I rejected it, afraid. The people, the village - they were all the ones who had tried to kill me. Maybe by having me meet this boy, Chigusa was getting me used to people and wanting me to get some practice, so I would go down the mountain? No, and not just so I could go down there, but so I'd end up capable of surviving by myself.

“… it's impossible.”

I could never survive out there. And that seemed to be the one big difference between me and the boy called Kingo. At the very least, living outside this mountain probably wasn't unusual at all for him. Surely if I did see him, he would be afraid of my ugliness just like those village kids. And not just that - maybe he'd look down on me as a lower lifeform. Or would he feel sorry for someone more miserable than him? Sitting in a corner of the room, feeling my fear transforming again into irritation, I waited for the door to open.

* * *

Pushing my way through the overgrown ferns and ivy, I thought that it was just like the old stories - this lady no-one knew about living on the mountain. It made me think of mountain crones and witches and other oddities. If somebody else had told me about her, I'd probably think they were lying, but it could be true if it was Ms. Hirasaka saying it.

“The path's getting rockier, Ma'am, watch your step!”

“Oh, we're here already, are we? Thanks, Kin-chan.”

Whenever I'd do something, Ms. Hirasaka would say “Thanks, thanks”. Maybe because I wasn't used to hearing it, I felt kind of guilty. This was my first time climbing a mountain while leading someone by the hand; she was trusting me to get her safely up the mountain path. Since coming to Ms. Hirasaka's, I'd found out that I really liked being useful. Being an outcast at home and school, I'd never experienced it before, so even though I was afraid it wasn't necessary, I was being a little overzealous.

“Oh, the forest's cleared up. We're there, aren't we?”

Ms. Hiraka said, only just capable of seeing light and colour. There was a break in the trees, with their ridiculously overgrown branches, and when my eyes got used to the sunlight spreading before them, an old, nearly-forgotten cabin appeared. It was real. I stared slackly at it, a little surprised.

“I can go alone from here.”

Pecking at the earth with her cane, Ms. Hirasaka continued on toward the cabin. She'd said she could, but her unsteady steps made me automatically rush over to her and support her arm.

“I'm okay, I'm okay, Kin-chan. Just wait here. I'll go tell Izana about you.”

Saying that, Ms. Hirasaka went inside the cabin.

The cabin was wooden, and built underneath a big zelkova tree. It looked just like a shed, with no windows to be found on it. It also resembled a shrine without its torii arches. I circled the cabin twice and found a long-horned beetle clinging to the underside of the wall. For a while I absent-mindedly fed it twigs and played with it, but I quickly got bored, and plopped down in the shade under the tree. It was okay while I thought about going to look at the rhinoceros beetle I'd seen on a sawtooth oak on the way, and other stuff like that, but the longer I was by myself for, the more and more I could only think anxious thoughts. School started again tomorrow. I couldn't join in the conversations in class even if I wanted to. When I'd moved into class, there was nowhere for me to go. Although, there was one kid who tried talking to me a lot at first, but he just wanted someone to brag to - about the games he'd been bought, about going to Tokyo, stuff like that – I didn't ask, but he just kept blabbering on and on, so I tuned him out. The next day, not even that one kid tried talking to me anymore. On the contrary, they would make groups in PE without putting me in any of them; when handing out sheets in class I would be the only one skipped over; I ended up ignored by the entire class, like I really wasn't there.

And then, one day, my school shoes disappeared from the school's shoe shelf. I eventually found them in the bin, with “bastard boy” scrawled on them in permanent marker. I don't know where they'd heard it from, but I felt hopeless, with nowhere to turn. Even when I went home, my step-mother and older brothers wouldn't treat me as family, for the same reason my shoes had been written on. Even my father was cold to me in front of the rest of the family, to keep up appearances. No matter where I was, the feeling that I wasn't wanted there never left me. But at least Auntie Chigusa was different. I had the title of helper, but she'd invited me into her home and told me that she “wanted me to stay here”. I could stay there as long as she could put up with me. It was the only place I could call home. So, I wanted the summer holidays to come quickly; I didn't like going to school.

While I'd been worrying, my shadow had stretched farther out from the shadow of the tree than it had before. What was Ms. Hirasaka saying to this Izana person? Maybe she was angry that Ms. Hirasaka had brought a stranger along, since she'd spent her life in hiding? She couldn't be a normal, living alone for so long in a place like this. Apparently she hadn't been to school, either. She might be an idiot. I got worried about Ms. Hirasaka.

“Ms. Hirasaka, Ms. Hirasaka!”

I called out to the cabin. Opening the door immediately, Ms. Hirasaka came out. I hadn't really called her out for anything, so, feeling awkward and unable to tell her that I'd thought Izana might have been doing something to her, I thought of an excuse.

“Ma'am, if it gets too dark, it'll be hard going home!”

“Yes, thank you.”

Ms. Hirasaka, smiling, used her cane to walk back to me. I was relieved that nothing seemed to have happened.

“Kin-chan, Izana said that she'll see you.”

“Really…?”

“You don't have to worry, she's a nice girl. She seems nervous, too. It's just because it's been a long time since she's seen anyone new, don't be afraid.”

Just before I went in, I suddenly got nervous that I was meeting a woman. My face wasn't exactly a hit with girls. I understood that she'd brought me with her to meet Izana, but I thought “What if she makes fun of my face?”, and I wanted to turn back right then.

“Kin-chan, I'm so sorry that I'm always relying on you, but please. Go see her, for me.”

I couldn't refuse when she put it like that.

I knocked lightly and touched the door of the cabin. I didn't hear a single sound inside, much less a reply. Despite the summer weather at my back, behind the door it was filled with a gloomy air, like it was cursing the brightness. When I slowly opened the door, I saw darkness. But I smelled someone quietly living there. Light shone straight in through the sliver of open door, and a pair of bare legs appeared before the sparkles of dust dancing in the air. They were white, like the legs of a doll. Surprised, I almost yelled out. Holding it back, I looked closer at the owner of the legs. She seemed to be sitting on the floor with her arms wrapped around her knees, making herself smaller to avoid the light's gaze. As my eyes got used to the darkness, I noticed the glittering eyes, glowering at me from under the thick fringe of shaggy black hair covering her face. I froze up at how sharp the glint was.

“Kingo.”

The voice that broke the silence was low for a woman's but pleasant in my eardrums, as unexpected as it was coming the dark mass with the snow-white legs.

“Izana…-san?”

My shrill voice sounded pathetic even to me. My eyes, gradually adapting to the dark, took in details like objects in the room and Izana's clothes. Then they came to an automatic halt at her face.

“Don't you stare at me.”

“S-sorry...”

I said, turning my eyes away. She had clearly expected me to notice her face. She really did look that out of the ordinary.

Embarrassedly casting my eyes around for somewhere else to look, the place was cramped but neatly-kept. What with the tidily-organised supplies and the futon folded up in the corner, it looked surprisingly clean to me, even though I'd been expecting to find her living more squalidly. Only the mountain of books piled up in a corner of the room seemed unusual. Maybe it seemed like an unusual amount because there was no bookshelf, but the massive number of books were mostly old, and the titles lining the spines seemed hard to read.

“Uh, um, it's nice to meet you.”

I myself didn't know what was so nice about it, but I thought I should at least say some kind of greeting. When I dipped my head in a bow, she returned a slight bow in the darkness.

“Chigusa… look after her.”

I could guess how close her relationship with Ms. Hirasaka was from the way she just called her “Chigusa”, without honorifics, but that was all the conversation we had that day. Saying goodbye, I left the cabin with a glance, like I was running away. Later, even on the path back, even after arriving back at the house, Izana's face wouldn't leave my mind. People said I had “buck-teeth” and a “sinister look”, but they would've even called the way she looked grotesque; she seemed far, far more unfortunate than me. Ms. Hirasaka had said that she was just nervous. But her behaviour had seemed more like she was intimidated at the thought of trusting you rather than being nerves. Maybe that was understandable.

I knew how it felt to be treated like “a child that shouldn't have been born”, too, with no-one to trust. Even though we hadn't asked to be born, we lived with the rejection that told us we shouldn't have.

But when I thought about what the villagers would say when we came down the mountain, I imagined that Izana would probably always get the worst of it, not me.

* * *

Right after the boy called Kingo left, my heart pounded terribly, and I was unable to stop crying for some reason. For the first time in over five years, I'd seen someone besides Chigusa, and for possibly the first time ever I'd shared a conversation with someone. The truth was, even saying those few words had scared me. The moment his eyes had stopped at my face, it was like my heart crumpled from the shame and my feelings of worthlessness. I'd expected the cruel moment. I'd put on a tough facade, and now I was being hit with an incredible exhaustion to compensate for it. I felt all the more strongly that I could never live like a normal person. Eventually, unable to say or do anything, I laid down on the futon.

 Kasane Chapter 57 Flames and Impressions

* * *

A few days after that, I frozen up again at the sound of a knock at the door. It wasn't Chigusa. Kingo had come alone.

“What do you want?”

I asked without opening the door.

“Um, to bring some clothes and towels and stuff...”

“Leave them there and go.”

This back-and-forth continued every few days. Kingo was just doing as Chigusa said, spiritedly bringing and fetching things between us. Now that I think about it, he was like a dog, desperately obeying its master so that it wouldn't get abandoned. So he came instead of Chigusa, who no longer made an appearance. I wanted to see her, but still unable to brush off the fear that I might run into Kingo on the way down to the house, I hesitated.

One day, just as Kingo arrived before the cabin, there was a sudden evening rain shower. Stranded and sheltering himself from the rain, his small shadow cast through the rotted shouji lattice. I waited and prayed that the rain would stop soon and he could go, but in the mental state I was in, the short rain felt endlessly long. I couldn't relax, knowing how uncomfortable he was outside the door. Probably having guessed how I felt, or not wanting anything to do with me, he seemed to be stooping awkwardly, facing away from the cabin. I couldn't just read a book or go to sleep, and getting annoyed at not being able to do anything, I suddenly broke the silence.

“How's Chigusa?”

I burst out with the question had been stuck in my throat for a while, that I had wanted to ask, but hadn't mustered the courage for. It had been another month since I'd seen her face. I was worried about her eyes. He seemed startled that I suddenly addressed him, and after a short pause, he haltingly gave a reply.

“M-M-Ms. Hirasaka's well. But she hasn't been out much, because of the heat.”

I felt a little relieved at those words, but not knowing what to say in return, silence fell again.

“...”

“...”

“… Ms. Hirasaka's always asking about you like that, too: 'Is Izana-san well?'”

In the violent din of the rain hitting the roof, his news was the only thing that was easy on my eardrums.

“To tell the truth, I think she wants to see you. Izana-san, maybe you should go down to her...”

“… maybe I should.”

My voice came out naturally.

Soon the rain cleared up, and with that, the day was over. But from then on, when Kingo visited, I would now ask him about Chigusa. The news Kingo would bring me got more detailed with every visit. I suppose it was because our nervousness cleared up, a bit at a time. We remained ever-divided by the door, and I had more and more kinds of questions to ask. “Is Chigusa's health okay?” “Are her eyes getting worse?” “Is she eating properly?” And Kingo would answer me, falteringly, but in detail. And in no time at all, he was talking without me asking him anything at all. And not just about Chigusa – he'd talk about what he'd learned in school, about books he'd read, and more. In contrast to Kingo, who got steadily more talkative, I was only able to give him brief replies, but I didn't find the time boring. Because we both had the same love and concern for Chigusa, we came to be just about capable of having a conversation.


Eventually, mid-July approached, and the door of the cabin was bleached by the heat. That didn't mean I was going to be showing myself in the sunlight, and I stayed covered in the darkness of the cabin as always, swapping words with Kingo. I suppose it was hot, but the cabin was protected by the shade of the big zelkova tree that had been planted so that it grew over the cabin's roof, and as long as there was a breeze, it was cooler inside the cabin than it was outside. But after one of our conversations one day, I came to feel that I couldn't stay cooped up any longer.

On that day, since morning, the sounds of flutes and drums could be heard from the direction of the shrine. My ears remembered them; they were yearly sounds. Chigusa had said that they were the rehearsals for the O-Bon Dance.

“Izana-san, have you been to the O-Bon Dance here?”

“No.”

“Really… well, I'm not going to it, either. I don't want to go.”

Though he said that, Kingo matched the distant pounding of the drums with one of his feet, sheepishly tapping in time with the beat. That was a contrast with his heavy, unchild-like sanpaku eyes that stared at the floor.

“Even though usually he acts like I'm a nuisance and ignores me, Dad told me to come with him… but if I did go… my brothers don't like it when I'm around. So I don't want to go… I wonder what it's like, though. The festivals here, I mean.”

“If it counts, I went to the New Year's Festival once.”

“You went!? What was it like? Did you try the choc-bananas?”

“No, I didn't eat anything.”

I remembered the time I wandered up that busy shrine path five years ago. The memory was wrapped in delicious aromas. The aromas, the commotion, and the lights of the paper lanterns had given me a kind of dream-like impression, but the sound of my hungry stomach growling had pulled me back to reality. Just a few short hours from that moment, that reality would be a world drained of its colour by the despair that would start taking root in my heart.

“What, then you went for all for nothing?”

He said uninterestedly, lightly rolling the tin can he'd brought in his palm. I bristled a little at his words. Then, I sharply recalled the dancing figure of the beautiful girl, like it was the sole thing that had mattered.

“… I did see the kagura.”

Kagura?”

“There was a girl called Namino – she's the miko, she dances. It was so... so beautiful.”

“Beautiful” wasn't the only three-syllable word I could use to express all the emotions that were slowly coming back to life in my heart. Excitement. Jealousy. Misery. Hopelessness. And they weren't all. My feelings were so complicated and jumbled up, and as reserved as I always was, I could probably never put them into words.

“Namino? … Oh, you mean Tsuki Namino. I don't like her, she makes fun of me.”

“You talk to Namino!?”

Without thinking, I lunged toward the doorway where Kingo was.

”Y- yeah, we talk. I don't like to, but we're in the same attendance group, so I have to.”

“Attendance group?”

“My school and her high school use the same bus in the next town. So for safety and stuff, we walk to the bus stop together, to keep an eye out for each other.”

The bond between the Tsukis and the Susanos - come to think of it, of course Kingo knew about Namino. It was hard to picture that beautiful, crane-like girl having a conversation with this jumpy, neurotic boy.

“What kind of things do you talk about?”

“Well, no, we do talk, but we don't talk about anything in particular...”

Kingo seemed bewildered at my sudden interest, when I hadn't shown any before.

“I don't look Namino in the eye, either, but she makes fun of me for being mopey and gross and stuff. She's older than me; I guess it's okay for her to say whatever she wants.”

“That beautiful Namino...”

“Her face is beautiful, but since it is, she's all the more full of herself, y'know.”

To be full of yourself because of a beautiful face. Because of that, because she was beautiful, she wasn't miserable like I was? To get praised by everyone around you, to have it not hurt to look in the mirror. No, it would be fun to look in the mirror, instead. Oh, how happy I'd have been with that. How jealous I was of her life.

“You're so interested in Namino? Why?”

“... ...”

It was hot behind my eyes. I felt a sensation like my heart was being filled with a cold, black liquid. It was the same feeling from back when I had watched the kagura. The oni woman, lurking inside me. I could never talk about these feelings, not even to answer him.

“Well, never mind... Namino's nothing. Besides, she's leaving next year.”

“She's leaving... ?”

“She's going to a university in another prefecture. I heard her say so before - she wants to leave the village.”

Why, why? I was struck by despair, like I was surrounded by total blackness.

I'd always been hatefully jealous of her, but while I was, I knew that I had to have her in my world. I'd lived these five years yearning for the memory of her dancing. Every New Year, I'd thought about going to see the kagura so many times. Even though I had no control over the circumstances I saw her in, right then, when I learned she'd be gone, I was tormented by a terrible sense of loss; it felt like every last flicker of hope in the world had been snuffed out.

“So, when she does the kagura next year... it'll be her last...”

“Yeah. Besides, it'll be the last year for the festivals themselves, anyway - the New Year's celebration and the O-Bon Dance. It's not just Namino going away; my brothers are going off to university and work, too. Everyone young is going away. Dad said when my brothers get their work offers confirmed, we might all be moving there with them. And when we move, it'll just be Ms. Hirasaka and Namino's family left, and the town'll die off.”

“...”

Was the thumping in my chest then the sound of my own heart or the distant pounding of a drum? Kingo left, and I thought about the true nature of my sense of loss, until a dark blue curtain fell over the sky. Eventually, with the light left off, the reason I'd been so fixated on this world rose up out of the deep darkness I steeped in. Why I was alive. What I was alive to do. It wasn't Namino, or the kagura; on the contrary, it told me that the village itself might be disappearing, and at long last, I realised.

“...... heh....... heh-heh...”

I laughed, even though it wasn't funny. It seemed Chigusa wasn't the only thing I had to live for. But this extra goal would probably be impossible for me to accomplishl. Leaving the darkness and stepping outside, I was touched by the moonlight. It was bright. The moon was so full that it hid even the stars. Down on the ground with me was a hushed grove of green broadleaf trees. The fields and houses of Akeiwa at the bottom of the mountain were likewise, green and quiet. That old Tsuki woman, that Susano man I saw at the shrine, and Namino were all down there. This village ruined by depopulation was nevertheless tucked away in tranquil, beautiful nature, awaiting a peaceful extinction. Yes, it would be peaceful. I couldn't allow that.

“... I want to destroy it...”

The festival, the people, the village itself. All of it.

I'd finally learned that inside me, beneath my awareness, this sprouting urge had been warmed by the long years and grown up alongside me. I wouldn't just repay Akeiwa by hating it. I wanted to return the favour. I wanted to destroy it until there was nothing left. This was the feeling that had kept me alive without going mad or dying. But what could I do, a girl who wasn't supposed to have even been born, who couldn't go anywhere? I had to seal this desire up inside me. A wish so idiotic couldn't be shared, even with Chigusa. 

Footnotes, Glorious Footnotes:
  1. The “Fire Horse Banishment Movement” (hinoeuma tsuihou undou・ひのえうま追放運動) was apparently a real thing.
  2.  One of the kanji for Zelkova is 槻 (tsuki, keyaki), the same used for the Tsuki family name.
  3.  It probably sounds a little out of place, but “grot”/”grotesque” is a rough replacement for “ブサ・busa”/”不細工・busaiku” in the original text.
  4. I didn't try adapting it into an English equivalent, but Sasae speaks in a strong Hiroshima accent. This, combined with the timing of Kadzura's birth (approx. 1945-1950, going by Sasae's comments) and the earlier-born Tsuki sons being normal, seems to strongly imply some kind of link with the Hiroshima bombing and Kadzura's (and by extension, Izana's and Kasane's) appearance. Or it could just be a very troubling red herring.
  5. Kagura notes: the bell is a kagura suzu (神楽鈴), a special kagura bell, the tree branch with white paper on it is a kind of torimono (採物), a prop used in Shinto rituals, in this case one probably made from the branch of a sasaki tree and paper shide (紙垂). The “white threads” that hang in the later half of the performance are probably more shide. The “two bows, two claps, one bow” ritual (二礼二拍手一礼, nirei nihakushu ichirei) is a basic gesture of respect to recognise and announce oneself to a kami.
  6. Akeiwa (朱磐) literally means "red rock", and in a similar vein, Susano (朱砂野) can be read as "red sand plains".
Li'l Habuta- er, "Kingo".

Pomelote
Pomelote is the physical embodiment of first-world millenial entitlement. You can get on her case by email at sheba.sullivan@gmail.com or kentuckyfriedkitten@hotmail.com, or Twitter at @poorlicoricekid, if you know any good spam bots. This space unintentionally left blank.

9 comments:

  1. Hi, I wanted to thank you for translating Kasane's chapters and Izana's novel, so, Thank You very much for your hard work.
    p.s. : the theory of Hiroshima is interesting.

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  2. Hi, I' have been following your blog for a while and I wanted to thank you for translating the Kasane's chapters and Izana's novel. Thank you very much for your hard work.
    P.S. the theory of Hiroshima is interesting.

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  3. Interesting, so Tsuki Namino and Izana are related to one another. I suppose the 'ugly gene' in Kasane started off with Kadzura. I wonder where Kadzura got her looks from then? Thanks for translating!

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    1. kadzura probably got her face from spontaneous gene mutation.

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  4. Thanks for the feedback, guys! And sorry for the clunkiness of the prose in parts; I'm still pretty new to active translation, so I haven't developed a proper "flow" yet.

    Re the Hiroshima connection: I should probably emphasise that I'm just speculating, but it seems like a pretty strong implication that Sasae was exposed to... something... in the wake of the bombing and it... did something to Sasae's genes or the developing Kadzura. I don't know what Sasae would be doing there, given that the Tsukis seem to have been in Akeiwa for a long time, but maybe she came from a branch of the family that emigrated to Hiroshima, and she came back to Akeiwa after the war for stability? I've only skimmed parts of the rest of the book, so I could be waaaay off-base, though.

    (Also, there's the chance that I'm mis-reading her accent and it's just supposed to be a general Chuugoku (the region where Akeiwa is) accent, which the Hiroshima accent is a sub-dialect of - and that would completely disbunk all of my grand theorising. (-、-) )

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    1. The Hiroshima connection is an interesting theory. If Sasae really was exposed to something then there's a possibility that had it not happened, Izana would have been pretty as well. After all, she and Namino are cousins.

      I am curious about exactly when Izana took Namino's face. Did Izana catch her by surprise or did she threaten her before killing her, or did Izana kill Namino at the heat of the moment?

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  5. Is the entire novel or there are more chapters?

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    1. It's just the first three chapters for the time being. There are four chapters left: Red, Chigusa, The Sunred Miko, and Winter.

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    2. okay thanks. I hope you translate all! :)

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