by Eugie Foster
I did not dwell overmuch upon destiny, living among the priests in Oda, sweeping the steps of the jinja shrine, and meditating at the seashore. Until the morning the Heikegani crab with the face of a samurai etched in its sepia armor came ashore and spoke to me.
As was my habit in those summer days, I had risen to greet the dawn. Hime, my white, four-legged shadow, tagged at my heels, more fascinated by the lapping waves than she ever was by a scampering mouse or the wings of a bird—a proclivity which ensured her welcome among the life- and peace-loving priests: a death-colored cat that never killed. Kneeling on the rocky beach that bordered the shrine, I faced the northeast expanse of endless waves. The first threads of silver brushed the horizon as fingers of water swept the shore. They curled into soft fists and retreated, leaving behind the crab.
It was large for its kind, its carapace as wide as my outstretched palm. Hime curled her tail around her paws as it scuttled from the water, her golden eyes impassive. I envied her composure. The crab approached with far greater alacrity than the dawn’s warmth, and I scrambled from my posture of meditation.
It did not menace me, but rather tilted its shell so I was treated to the visage of the scowling samurai on its back. I had never credited the stories that linked these creatures to the ghosts of the Taira who died in the Battle of Dan-no-ura—although I was scrupulous never to eat their meat—but never before had the shell formations seemed so lifelike.
The flat eyes blinked open, transforming from the hard curve of burnished almond to the liquid and living orbs of a man. They fixed upon me, and the shell-sculpted lips rippled apart.
“Boy, I did not die so you could languish among the priests, contemplating rocks and trees.”
The crab used the high speech of the courts in the manner of a lord to an inferior. I was so astonished that I did not think to be offended.
“Honorable, er, crab, I apologize if I have somehow wronged you—” I began.
The carapace-face scowled. “To think my son would grow to be such a simpering weakling. It took a fearsome oni demon to finish me, and your mother fought like a tigress that you might live.”
I gaped at the crab. “Son?”
The face’s expression softened. “Perhaps it is the priests I should blame. Nevertheless, the time for indolence is over. In three days it will be the anniversary of our murders. If you would honor we who bore you, go to your mother and staunch her tears.”
“M–my mother?” I had never known the comfort of a mother. I had been surrendered as a squalling infant to the kindly, albeit reserved, care of the priests.
“They hewed off her feet so she could not run. Now she stands on Mount Mori, telling her tale to all. Free her and avenge me before the sun dawns on the fourth day, or I will curse you as a faithless son.”
The crab swiveled and marched back into the dappled waters. As we conversed, the dawn had transformed into morning. Adorned with glittering jewels of sunlight, the sea crested over the samurai’s helm, erasing dimension, color, and expression from the drab shell. In a spray of brine, the crab sank into the depths and was gone.
I stared for long moments where I had last seen the animated visage of a father I had never known. Hime groomed a creamy paw as though nothing had transpired more momentous than sunrise. She miaoed, and it shook me from my stupor.
I pelted back to the shrine, leaving Hime to complete her feline ablutions.
Kannushi Akihiko was making offerings to the kami as I burst into the jinja’s heart. Although I all but danced with impatience, he continued pouring a trickle of omiki, ritually purified sake, into a pottery dish, before turning to acknowledge me.
He bowed, and with belated decorum, I returned the courtesy.
“Hiroki-kun,” he said, “I see from your sandals that you did not choose to wade in the tide pools this morning. Were they not as enticing as yesterday’s?”
Remorse suffused my face. In my agitation, I had blundered into this sacred space without removing my footwear.
“Sensei, forgive me.” I wobbled, balancing on one leg as I struggled to undo the laces of my waraji.
He padded past me in immaculate socks, his feet silent over the shrine’s floor. I hopped after him, one sandal dangling from my hand and the other still affixed to my foot.
“A crab spoke to me,” I blurted as he paused at the shoe cupboard to retrieve his own waraji.
He seated himself on the entranceway’s raised ledge to better don his sandals. “What did it say?”
Akihiko was my favorite priest. Although the eldest of the brotherhood—his face creased and seamed as ancient parchment—he was the only one who would tie up the hem of his robes to splash in the sea with a young boy and who always had time to hear me with a solemn face and boundless patience, whether I was complaining about the prevalence of pickled eel at dinnertime or musing about the nature of the infinite. But now I wished he would register disbelief to better match my turmoil.
“It said it was my father’s spirit. It told me it would curse me if I did not comfort my mother who cries without feet on the mountain. But that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? It was a Heikegani crab, and surely I’m not descended from the Taira clan.”
Waraji neatly affixed, Akihiko rose and strolled outside. I hobbled after him, admonishing myself for my single-shoed predicament—both for taking off the one and forgetting to replace it when I had the opportunity.
In the shadowed canopy of a copse of elm trees, Akihiko settled into an attitude of serenity. I plunked myself beside him and hurriedly laced on my detached waraji.
“Why are you so certain that you cannot be Taira?” he asked. “Have you had so many encounters with talking crabs that you have determined they are prone to uttering falsehoods?”
“B–but, I can’t be nobly born. I’m nobody of consequence.”
“You are as you have always been. The circumstances of your birth cannot grant or detract consequence.”
“Your given name is Taira no Chikazane. Your father was Taira no Sukemori, the second son of Taira no Shigemori, who was the first son and heir of Taira no Kiyomori, directly descended from Emperor Kuammu himself.”
Each of his words penetrated like icy raindrops. “Why have you never told me of my heritage?”
“Would you have me send you into the world with only a single sandal?” Akihiko tapped my newly donned waraji. “As you have demonstrated, all actions must occur in their proper sequence. Omitting or neglecting any of the prescribed elements results in shame, imbalance, and disharmony.” My sock, visible as it protruded over the straw toe, was begrimed from my clumsy pursuit from shrine to copse.
“My family’s honor is more than a mishap of footwear!”
I waved my hand, seeking to dispel the cloud of confusion Akihiko’s words had created. “The crab said my mother wept on the mountainside. But it also said they were both murdered.”
“A perplexing riddle. I have found that the best means of unraveling an enigma is by meditation. Truth typically reveals itself once one has achieved enough clarity to perceive it.”
He closed his eyes.
“Sensei, I can’t just sit here and meditate. I must go to Mount Mori.”
“As you will, Hiroki-kun. But do bring along your book of sutras and a calligraphy brush so you may continue your studies. I also recommend you take a jar of omiki. Sake is so refreshing after a long trek.” His hand dipped into his sleeve and pulled out a slender porcelain container. “How convenient that I poured an extra jar this morning.”
I accepted the rice wine, bemused and exasperated. “Thank you, Sensei.”
He cracked an eye open. “And put on clean socks before you go.”
It seemed foolish to collect those things Akihiko had suggested, pointless delay. If I had not been in the habit of obeying him, I would have marched myself off without hesitation. In frenzied haste I retrieved brush and book and donned a clean pair of socks. As I pulled them on, Hime appeared.
“I must go off to perform the duty my father commanded,” I told her. “But don’t worry. I’m sure the priests will fill your bowl with fish and rice every day.”
Duly outfitted, I set off for the torii, the shrine’s physical and metaphysical gate. However, I discovered that Hime had no intention of letting me embark alone upon my mission. She sidled at my legs, ignoring my efforts to shoo her—both cajoling and scolding alike. Reasoning with a cat is as futile as arguing with the waves, and rather than waste more time, I gave up. Thus, Hime padded beside me as I ascended that grandfather spirit steeped in age and grandeur, Mount Mori.
We trekked the slender trail while the sun slipped from the eastern gates and wheeled across the palace of sky. As the sun retreated into her western pavilion, I cleared the debris from a ditch, our shelter for the night. It occurred to me—belly rumbling and teeth chattering—that in my hurry, I had neglected to provision myself with so much as a rice ball or tinder box.
Hime did not immediately chastise me for my blunder. First she miaoed politely, inquiring after supper. But when I showed her the emptiness of my sleeves, her cries turned plaintive.
“Forgive me, gentle one. Tonight, you and I must go hungry. But as soon as it’s dawn, I will look for a stream to fish. Come, curl up in my arms; at least I can endeavor to warm you.”
Hime fixed me with her golden eyes and, quick as only a cat can, bounded away. I debated for a heartbeat whether I should let her go and trust her to return. But Hime was a pampered creature, unfamiliar with wilderness dangers. I would never forgive myself if she came to harm.
I chased after. Fortunately, a white cat’s coat is well suited to catching stray beams of moonlight, and I glimpsed her stalking through the underbrush.
“Hime-chan, come here,” I called. But, in the infuriating manner of catkind, she allowed me to approach only close enough to tantalize before leaping away. She led me a merry chase, crashing through prickly scrub and wending through dense foliage. At last, I saw her crouched atop a boulder. Around her perch, a stream rippled, mirror-bright.
With detached amusement, Hime let me pluck her from her roost. I had every intention of scolding her, but the notion fled when I saw the woman standing in the stream.
She was beautiful, her inky hair flowing in a mantle down her back. Her kimono was embroidered brocade patterned with elegant butterflies. But where her legs should be were trailing wisps of nothing. Tears coursed from her empty eyes, mingling with the smoke and mist of her absent legs, to join with the scrolling stream.
“Come closer,” she whispered, “so you may hear my tale.”
I did not move, only clutched Hime tighter. “Noble lady, I can hear you well enough from here.”
“Then listen. When the oni came, my husband bade me run so that I and our son might live. But it was to death I fled. Treachery and assassins, they spilled my life on this stone. My last sight was of a black-garbed killer turning to slay my baby. Husband and child murdered. I am doomed to an eternity of sorrow.”
I swallowed. “Who was your husband?”
“The noble samurai, Taira no Sukemori.”
“Then you need no longer mourn for your son. He was given to priests to be raised and is in good health, notwithstanding an empty belly.”
“Liar! For shame, to taunt a grieving mother. Your disrespect has earned you a yurei’s curse!”
“Would you damn the son you gave your life to save?”
The yurei of my mother studied me, still weeping black tears. “Prove you are he, and I will depart for the Pure Land and give you my blessing instead.”
“What proof would you credit?”
“Only the reverence a son owes the memory of his mother.” She clasped her hands in the sleeves of her kimono and waited.
The reverence a son owes the memory of his mother? Unnerved by the yurei’s wet, unblinking stare, I contemplated the boulder. Such an ominous rock, not like the sacred stones that adorned the shrine’s provinces. The thought of my mother’s spirit anchored here, chained by violence and tragedy, weighted my heart. Maybe I could not free her, and perhaps she would curse me for my presumption, but I would be comforted, knowing that the boulder, at least, had been honorably consecrated.
I had not taken priestly vows yet, but I had attended many purification ceremonies, and thanks to Akihiko, I had a jar of omiki. And did not the priests say that a single, sincere prayer could move heaven?
I tore several empty pages from my sutra book, ripped and folded them into lightning-shaped shide streamers, and bound them with grass to the handle of my calligraphy brush to craft a makeshift shide wand. Bowing to the world’s corners, I strove for tranquility.
“Heavenly kami and earthly kami,” I intoned, “hear me.” My hands trembled as I flicked the shide wand over the boulder. “Purity of Heaven, purity of Earth, sweep impurities from within and without.” The shide rustled and shushed, a familiar sound, holy and restful. “I beseech the kami to cleanse and bless this place so my mother may know peace.” I bowed and unstoppered the jar of omiki. My hands no longer shook as I poured the sake onto the boulder. “Reverently, I speak this prayer. Kashikomi kashikomi mo maosu.”
When I was done, my mother’s yurei raised her head to the starry sky. Her eyes were bright as hope, and she no longer wept.
“Surely, only a dutiful son would forgo food and drink to bring omiki to honor the place of his mother’s death,” she murmured. “I am content. What will you do now, Chikazane-kun?”
“My father’s spirit called upon me to avenge him. I must kill the oni that murdered him.”
A tiny crease appeared on my mother’s brow. “It is the hasty hunter who lunges for the rustling bush before he knows what it conceals.” She bowed. “Or the hungry one. At least I can keep your clamoring belly from clouding your caution. But beware that your true quarry does not elude you as you chase after a paper tiger.”
I opened my mouth, abuzz with questions, but a bubble of light whirled from the heavens, stealing away breath, words, and opportunity. It whispered around my mother, playing with the hem of her kimono as it bore her aloft. She glanced back, and the expression on her face was both tender and pensive.
“Chikazane-kun, follow the stream up the mountain,” she called, “and you will find the oni’s cave and perhaps the steel beneath the paper.”
Then she was gone.
Where she had been, a ball of flame danced on the water. It glided across the surface and settled atop the newly sanctified boulder. While I gaped, it flared bright as fifty lanterns, and before I could raise a hand to shield my dazzled eyes, it shrank to a comforting blaze. At the base of the boulder, a sumptuous banquet had materialized: roasted fish, steamed rice, and plum wine.
Enticed by the aroma, Hime bounded to the feast. A well-mannered cat, she awaited my attendance before commencing her meal, but she made her impatience clear by the anxious lash of her tail.
I was not so amazed as to require Hime to wait longer; I hurried to join her.
The fish was delicious, each mouthful a harmony of subtle flavors and delicate textures. The rice was perfectly cooked, neither too sticky nor too dry, and the plum wine was refinement itself. As we ate, the flame imparted an atmosphere of cheery hospitality and restful warmth. Despite having no fuel but the stone at its base, it seemed capable of burning indefinitely. At the completion of our meal, lulled by a sated belly, the cozy fire, and Hime purring at my side, I slept.
My dreams were filled with terrifying images of blue-skinned demons, barbed fangs glittering as they lunged at me. The murky gauze of dawn brushing my eyelids was a welcome reprieve.
Although the fire still burned, merry and warm, I shivered, chilled by my nightmares. Roused by my agitation, Hime opened her eyes and yawned.
“Ah, Hime, it is all good and well for my father’s spirit to exhort me to confront an oni, but I do not even possess a katana.” I stood, and Hime grudgingly rose to her paws. “Not that I could wield one. And this oni defeated my father, a mighty samurai. How am I to keep from being devoured, much less avenge him?”
“Master, please forgive this one’s presumption, but neither Kannushi Akihiko nor your mother’s spirit held any delusions as to your fighting prowess, even if the crab was inclined to bluster.” The voice was soft and fluid as a purr.
I cast about, but there was only Hime.
“The priest, in his eminent wisdom, provisioned you with omiki, which you applied to masterful effect.”
Incredulous, I watched her feline mouth shape words.
“It is this one’s humble estimation that master is adequately equipped for this undertaking, although perhaps—and I mean no disrespect—it would have been advantageous to have brought an extra fishcake or two.”
“You can talk!” I blurted.
Hime regarded me with unblinking, golden eyes. “You have conversed with your father’s spirit manifested upon a crab shell and consoled the yurei of your mother, and it is my speech you cannot credit?”
“B–but you’re a cat!”
She gave her back to me, the twitch of her ear showing her affront.
“Hime-chan, I meant no discourtesy. I am only amazed. Why have you never spoken before?” But she would not relent, and I was left to apologize to her stiff tail.
She stalked upstream, leaving me to tag after. The morning passed in stilted silence. As the sun crested overhead, I fetched out my book of sutras in a bid to win her forbearance and flipped through it.
“How could priestly meditations help me defeat an oni?” I mused aloud.
Hime glanced over one white shoulder. “So now you have decided to heed the words of a mere cat?”
“Hime-chan, if I have offended you, then I am the basest of villains. We have been fast friends all my life, and assuredly you have my most earnest confidence and trust.”
A tentative purr rose from her throat, but her tail remained implacable.
“Surely you are the wisest and cleverest of cats, and it is my sincerest desire that you help ease the burden of my loutish ignorance. Please, Hime-chan?”
Her tail relented. “Hannya-Shin-Kyo,” she miaoed.
I paged to the appropriate sutra. “Meditation upon emptiness of form?”
“It is not merely the emptiness of your mind that it brings about, master. Does not Kannushi Akihiko say that to embrace the sutra, you must become it?”
“Yes, but I don’t see—”
“Exactly.” Hime sat so abruptly I almost trod on her tail.
“Why have you stopped?”
“Shh! The oni’s cave is around that bend. I scent the old death of discarded bones, and his youki, his demon energy, prickles my whiskers.”
I froze, my heart leaping in my chest.
“He breathes deep and slow,” Hime whispered, “as a bear in torpor.”
“Then now would be the time to strike. If I had a large stone or a tree branch, perhaps I could—”
Hime flattened her ears and hissed. “Are you in such haste to be devoured?”
“If you truly trust me to look after your best interests, remove your clothes and give me your calligraphy brush.”
As I was not at all in a hurry to be eaten or rent to bits, I did as Hime instructed, although more than a little abashed at finding myself unclad at the dictates of a cat. I hid my garments in the long grass and detached the shide streamers from my brush, cringing at each crackle and whish.
Hime bade me lay the book on the ground opened to Hannya-Shin-Kyo. Rising to her hind legs, she took the brush in her paws and used the stream’s water to moisten my ink stone.
She wielded the calligraphy brush with dexterity, her claws and paw pads daintily manipulating the slender instrument. Starting at my feet, and referring often to the book, she painted the sutra on my skin. I kneeled and lay supine so she could continue decorating my flesh, shifting when she requested so she could paint my back. The brush whisked, damp and prickly, from the top of my scalp, including the ticklish curve of my ears, to the space between each toe.
“There,” she said at last. “Your flesh has become Hannya-Shin-Kyo.”
The novelty of the situation had eroded when I lay facedown in the dirt. “And how is this to benefit me against the oni?”
“You must discipline your mind to match your body, and you will be to the oni as the silence that frames a heartbeat, the stillness between thoughts, and the space outside the borders of the poet’s composition.”
“How do you know this?”
“I am a cat.”
She said it as though it was all the answer I should require, and perhaps it was. After all, who was more adept than a cat at lurking unseen and gliding upon noiseless paws?
I composed myself, although the oni’s proximity was not conducive to serenity, and strove to attain that elusive quietude where heart and mind embrace emptiness and the path of enlightenment becomes clear. I closed my eyes, pushing aside thoughts of the oni, my duty, and even the grit beneath my naked skin. I chanted the Hannya-Shin-Kyo and found a corner of tranquility.
“An estimable accomplishment, master,” Hime said. “I can no longer see you. But linger a while. Horses approach.”
I heard the jingle of leather and metal and the thut-thut of hooves.
“I must warn these travelers away from the oni’s den,” I murmured.
Hime did not reply.
“Hime-chan?” I stood, and she did not stir an ear tip, only continued to gaze at my previous posture.
Wonder would have sundered my tranquility, so I let it drift past, unmoved as the mountain by a breeze.
The horsemen drew closer, a trio of men. At their head rode a nobleman garbed in the elegant uniform of a military lord of high rank. The train of his ocean-blue brocade spilled off his horse’s haunches. The silk was embroidered in white and silver threads with graceful butterflies identical to the ones that had adorned my mother’s kimono—the Taira crest. My crest. The soldiers beside him wore simple gray, blazoned with the shogun crest of Minamoto no Yoritomo. Taira and Minamoto, implacable adversaries riding in accord?
I chased after as they cantered around the bend. In the side of the mountain, a black mouth dribbled water from a stony throat. The three men dismounted and tied their steeds away from the cave’s entrance. The Taira nobleman strode forward.
“Oni!” he bellowed. “Rouse your lazy bones!” His voice bounced among the rocks, the echoes lingering.
A thunderous howl blasted from the darkness, and I clung to the nothing of Hannya-Shin-Kyo, setting each syllable like a shield against terror.
Out of the cave, a monstrous figure emerged, as tall as two men and massive as four. Its skin was the blue of smoke, and black horns sprouted from its head. A ragged tiger pelt draped its hips, and a gnarled, iron club, thick as my waist, hung from a ginger-striped thong.
“Who dares?” it roared.
The nobleman pulled a tawny jewel from his sleeve. It drank in the sun and cast off brilliant streamers of light. “Bow before me, demon, or feel the gofu’s bite.”
The oni crashed to its craggy knees and kowtowed.
I almost lost the rhythm of Hannya-Shin-Kyo then. The jewel, the gofu, was the pivot upon which my destiny revolved.
“Forgive me, master.” The oni’s voice was harsh, the grate of bone upon rock. “I forgot the cadence of your speech in the passage of seasons. What is your bidding?”
“Did you also forget the date? Tomorrow marks the end of our compact.”
“I know the date.” I felt the oni’s words rumble through the hollows of my chest.
“And tomorrow will herald the beginning of a new one.”
The oni snarled, baring a mouthful of jagged teeth. “No! You promised to free me.”
The nobleman sneered. “So you may split my skull and devour me? I think not.”
“I am oath-bound to exact no retribution upon you.”
“I am not so foolish as to trust the pledge of a demon.”
The hatred in the oni’s eyes was as plain as it was tangible, hot as the blast from a furnace and black as deceit. “It seems that I am the fool to have credited the words of a traitor.”
The nobleman brandished the jewel. “Malign me again, and I will set the gofu in burning coals and watch you writhe while your insides smolder.”
“You may hold the key to my youki, Taira no Kimitake, but if you forswear your vow, the safeguards of our pact are forfeit. One day, I will rend the meat from your bones and feast upon your screams.”
Kimitake laughed. “Empty words, barren threats. While I possess the gofu, you must serve me faithfully.”
The oni spat. “With so much duplicity blighting your ki, how long do you think your good fortune will last? My patience is boundless.”
“I, not the uncaring infinite, govern my fortune.”
“Enough of your insolence. I have decided that it is time again for my fortune to rise. The empire is tranquil, and so the emperor looks fondly upon Yoritomo. Therefore, I command you to upset this inopportune peace. Tomorrow you will raze the shrine below and slaughter all within it. While the countryside stews in turmoil, I will challenge and defeat you, and the emperor will set me as shogun in Yoritomo’s place.”
“You would defile a sacred place?”
“Of course not. But you would.”
The oni glared in impotent fury as Kimitake and his escort withdrew.
As evening’s cloak swept over the mountainside, Kimitake and his men organized a camp—raising a tent, gathering wood, and cooking rice. Kimitake retired while his soldiers paced the perimeter.
I crept into Kimitake’s tent, secure in the protection of Hannya-Shin-Kyo, although I deemed it wise to wait until both guards’ backs were turned and Kimitake’s snores were loud and even before I scrambled in.
While I had expected to rifle through the sleeves and folds of his uniform, or perhaps upend boxes and baskets in search of a secreted compartment, the gofu was plain to see. Kimitake’s outflung arm revealed a hand enveloped in a skein of white silk. Layer upon layer of fabric, sheer as a butterfly’s wing, wrapped the gofu tight against his palm. By the wan flame of the single, burning lamp, it glowed through the bindings like a star.
Another item I had not provisioned myself with: a knife. But then, I had emptiness of form, better than any blade. I hoped. Murmuring my sutra, I began the onerous chore of unknotting and unwinding the silk. Before long, I knelt in a pool of air-light whiteness. But as I tugged the final strip, I felt sweat tickling my forehead. Without thinking, I rubbed it away. My fingers came back smeared with black, the Hannya-Shin-Kyo characters smudged from the droplet of perspiration.
Kimitake’s eyes started open. We shared a moment of fright, then he flung himself away, gripping the gofu in both hands.
“Guards!” he shouted.
The two soldiers barreled in, knocking me to the ground. One thumped my head with his fist, while the other drew his katana.
“Wait!” Kimitake called.
The speeding katana stopped, its tip a child’s fingertip from my throat.
“Before you die, thief, tell me who procured your services. Who knows about the gofu and the oni?”
“My service is not procured,” I said.
Kimitake ignored my denial. “Tell me who spies upon me at Yoritomo’s court. Give me the name of the man who dares plot against me, and your death will be quick. Otherwise, I will ensure that your last hours are a banquet of suffering.”
“I am not from Yoritomo. My name is Taira no Chikazane. My father was Taira no Sukemori.”
A sinister smile curved Kimitake’s lips. “Sukemori’s brat. You survived, after all. No matter. The detail of your death was only postponed.”
He displayed the gofu, taunting me with the gem under my chin. “Be cheered, boy. You will die as your father did.”
I stared at him. “You are the steel beneath the paper.”
Kimitake swept from the tent, gesturing to his soldiers to bring me. He snatched up a burning brand while they hefted me like a sack of rice and dragged me to the black cave mouth.
“Oni!” Kimitake shouted. “Come out. I have a gift for you.”
The ground shivered as the demon emerged. “What is this?” he grumbled.
“Do you not recognize him?” Kimitake said. “You devoured his father many years ago. I would have spitted him upon a katana as a babe, but now he shall meet the same fate as Sukemori.”
“He is only a boy.”
“He is old enough to die. Sukemori’s death was too easy. You will eat his son alive, beginning at his feet.” Kimitake flaunted the gofu, shoving it at the oni like a weapon. “Obey me!”
Hissing and yowling, a milk-white star detached itself from the abyss of sky and sped through the air. It struck Kimitake’s outstretched hand, and the gofu flew out, an arc of gold. Four red stripes crossed Kimitake’s wrist, possibly the first blood that Hime had ever drawn.
For a heartbeat, we hovered, frozen. Then the oni, Kimitake, his two soldiers, and I scrambled after the gofu.
The torch dropped, sputtering and dying on the ground, and all was blackness. Around me, the sound of frantic movement swelled the night, accompanied by the oni’s bellows. A man screamed, and I heard silk and other, thicker things torn asunder. The chime of drawn steel rang out.
I crouched in the dark, searching. It was an impossible task. I would never find the tiny jewel before the oni turned its fury to me.
“Hime, I can’t see it!” I shouted.
“Clarity!” she yowled. “Heed Akihiko’s wisdom. This is another truth.”
It seemed a questionable time to meditate, but I did as Hime advised. I inhaled and pushed aside the wet, ugly sounds erupting in the darkness, exhaled, and let my terror leave with my breath. I whispered the syllables of Hannya-Shin-Kyo and embraced the stillness between thoughts like a warm robe against the cold.
In the quietude of my mind’s eye, I saw the sun. It floated upon the horizon in glorious brilliance, wreathed in garlands of fire.
I plucked it from the sky and opened my eyes.
In my hand, the gofu blazed, turning the clearing from night to noon. All activity stopped, fixated by the radiant jewel.
The oni gripped his iron club in a monstrous claw. At his feet, both of Kimitake’s men sprawled in unnatural poses, their blood soaking the ground. Kimitake had drawn his katana.
“Oni, stop!” I shouted.
The demon regarded me. “I have no argument with you, son of Taira no Sukemori. Give me the gofu, and I will not trouble you.”
“Do not believe him!” Kimitake shouted. “He is a demon and lies as easily as he breathes.”
“As you do.” I stepped forward. “Oni, lay down your club.”
The oni did not obey, but only stood, watching me.
“Fool!” Kimitake cried. “You think possession gives you mastery over a demon’s youki? It took me years to learn the secrets of the gofu. Give it back, or the oni will kill us both.”
“I think he will not harm me while I hold it. Is that so, oni?”
The oni rumbled assent.“But know, young Taira, that though you hold my fetters, I will not volunteer the key. I will not willingly embrace slavery.”
“That demon killed your father,” Kimitake said.
“You may as soon blame my iron club for Sukemori’s death,” the oni growled. “I was your tool.”
“Unbound, it will destroy indiscriminately. Demons have no honor, only hunger and lust.”
I faced oni and kinsman. “The demon has shown more honor than you.” I flung the gofu at the oni. Fast as thought, the oni snatched it from the air. He popped it into his gaping mouth and swallowed.
“Fool!” Kimitake shrilled. He slashed at me, a killing stroke, and the world slowed. For the third time that night, I watched my death approach. But again it was deflected, this time by the bluntness of iron.
“No,” the oni said. “You have harmed this one enough.” A claw snaked out, taloned lightning, and seized Kimitake around the waist. The club came down on the nobleman’s head. A slight tap, but it rendered Kimitake senseless.
The oni bowed to me, the man clutched in his fist like a limp doll. “Your father was an honorable man too. You should know that his dying request was that I spare his wife and son. I was taken by his sincerity. I could not save your mother, but it was by my intervention that Kimitake’s assassins did not find you. And it was my envoy, pledged to secrecy, who saw you safely to the priests’ care.”
“Here,” Hime miaoed, twining herself about my ankles. “Have I not taken good care of you?”
“Wondrous good care.” I kneeled to stroke her white fur. Purring, she sprang into my arms.
“Should I be concerned at the intricacies of your machinations, oni?” I asked.
The oni chuckled. “If I were younger, perhaps. But the spinning of the universe is long, and I have shed enough blood this turning of it. I wish nothing more than to meditate upon enlightenment and be left alone.” He grinned at Kimitake. “But first, I will have a fine meal.”
Hime and I made haste down the mountain, not wishing to be privy to the oni’s vengeance.
We paused only to fish the stream by my mother’s boulder, and so passed beneath the torii’s gate well fed and bearing a bounty of fresh trout. I remembered to doff my waraji before I strode into the shrine, and I bowed low to Akihiko as he poured an offering of omiki.
“Welcome back, Taira no Chikazane-dono,” he said.
“You must always call me Hiroki-kun, Sensei. All that I am, I owe to your teachings. After I have taken my priest’s vows, I will explore my destiny with the name Oda no Chikazane to honor both my parents and this shrine. But to you, I will be Hiroki.”
Akihiko smiled and bowed.
As was our habit, the next morning, Hime and I rose to greet the dawn. But though we watched the whirling surf until the sun gilded the waves, not a single crab came ashore.
Previously published in Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice (Eugie Foster, 2009) and Japanese Dreams: Fantasies, Fictions & Fairytales (ed. Sean Wallace, 2009). Reprinted with permission.
About the Author
Eugie Foster (1971 – 2014) grew up in the Midwest, earning a Master of Arts degree in Developmental Psychology before retiring from academia to writing. She has published numerous works and received many awards including but not limited to: the 2009 Nebula Award for Best Novelette, the 2011 and 2012 Drabblecast People’s Choice Award for Best Story, and the 2009 Bards and Sages Author of the Year award. Her website is http://www.eugiefoster.com/ .