Friday, March 3, 2017

A Short Story: Death Cures a Fool


If I stand downstream, I can see their corpses. A waterlogged kitten floats down like a listless bag of flour. Next, comes a toad, its back legs missing. Finally, I see beetles. Huge throngs of black bug carcasses come rolling down the river and I watch them pass by with a sigh and shake of my head. If you have ever known a demon, you’d know that they often come in the form of children. And a foolish little girl squats on a hill some ways away. Her hands are wrapped around the neck of some poor, defenseless, animal and she’s smiling. Smiling before she dunks it into the water head first. Her eyes alight on bubbles, froth, and foam before there’s a sudden, gentle, silence that wafts up in the form of one monstrous bubble. Then she lets go and the river takes the corpse, wiping away her handiwork. Hiding her true nature from our parents and the world. But no matter what she does, she cannot hide it from me.
I wish you would go away, Hana.” She says as I crest the hill, invading her little hiding spot. “You always watch me. And it’s not like I can’t feel your look of disgust.”
A blue creature wreathes and contorts in the heart of her cupped hands. It is crying, coal black beak opened, as it tries to slap her hands away with its wings.
If you think what I do is wrong, why not tell someone? I’m sure Mama would believe you, but…” at her horrid joke, she cocks her head. “…how would you ever get the words out?”
I-I-I—” I swallow my tongue. I stammer. “I’ll t-t-t-t-tell her!”
Oh?” the little girl cocks her head to the opposite side. “What’s that, Hana? Why not just spit it out?” and the creature squawks as her hands strangle it. She squeezes and there’s a sprinkled crack that makes the poor creature cry more, cry more. Its wings hang uselessly now, as useless as my tongue, and it makes a dying protest as it feels the weight of its pain.
I point at the bird. I point at her. I fling my finger at the ground.
What? Can’t you speak? Oh? The pretty birdie? Oh, tweet, tweet, tweet.” She sings. Crawling closer to the river, she is but a few steps away before she stretches out her arms. “You want me to drop it, hm? Drop it where, now? Go on, tell me, big sister.”
T-t-t—the ground!” Stop it! I want to yell. Stop this, now! But when tempers rise, my throat and tongue are as useless as a bird without wings. My throat closes, my tongue becomes cotton in my mouth. Words twist and devolve in my throat and it is painful, painful to make a sentence. Painful to be heard like this—with broken words and halved sentences. Heat rushes to my cheeks and the moment I open my mouth, there’s just a gurgling sound. I am bereft. Inept.
And she drops the damned bird.
No!”
Oh, don’t worry.” She says. “It can fly.”
But it cannot swim.
When it splashes, I am frozen. When bubbles riot on the surface, my stomach goes lopsided and my mouth waters. When my sister giggles, her voice like a million shards of glass breaking, I want to cry. Heat pounds behind my eyes and I cannot think.
Then, the bubbles stop. Then, my sister leans over the edge of the bloated silver river, and she chuckles. “Well, aren’t you a fighter?” for the little blue bird has surfaced. It peeps and squalls and I believe it is calling out to me as it thrashes its head and tries to get away from her. Tries to use the river’s current to find a safe place from this horrid four-foot monster.
But nothing stops a demon. Nothing stops my sister.
Come closer you little shit.” She hisses and hurls her hands out. Grasping like a broken fishing pole, she splashes through the water with her hands but takes care not to fall in, not to get too close to the water’s edge. The bird scoots along and I pray the river’s current will take it and save it. But as she wanders closer, my heart sinks.
D-d-don’t,” I swallow, “don’t go t-t-to far!”
Shut up.” She snaps, reaching forward. Still reaching. Stretching out across the surface of the river as far as she can go. “I’ve almost got it.” And she snarls as she stretches and the creature scoots forward—just out of reach. Just out of her grasp.
But, “Come here!”
Ume!” I screech.
When an ocean recedes, backing away from land, sand is left in its wake. It sparkles and glistens, winks in the summer sun like stars thrown across the night sky. We are like so many specks of sand scattered across a beach, my sister and I. And as my sister plunged head first into the river—her chubby hands still reaching for the bird—I began to wonder, would one be missed? One gritty piece of black staining the sand with its color? Would this little speck be missed?
It was a moment of clarity that passed as quickly as I could blink.
Hana!” Ume screamed. “Hana—help!” for she could not swim.
I’d like to think that terror froze me, forced me to stay stuck in place with my hand to my throat and the other on my belly. I’d like to say that, yes, if I had been in my right mind—if that moment of clarity had been more than a mere moment, but a stretch of thoughts and actions and words—then I would have sprinted to the edge of the river and pulled her back to the shallow end. But, as the river current forced her away, I watched her hands peak through the surface with the bird still grasped between them. A dying song fought its way over the cry of my sister and the constant thrashing of the lake. A faded lullaby told me to watch and wait. Told me to let this speck of sand dribble and die in the water as the river pushed and pulled my sister away.

Downstream, her corpse snagged on a low hanging willow branch. Wide eyes told me that she fought the water, fought the current and the surge. But it was too much for her little body to handle. Floating there, her slimy body smacking the shallow edge of the water, the whites of her eyes gazed back at me; listless and eternal.
 

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Short Story: Birdsong

They called him Nest because he carried a little bird on his back.
Moo-ma?” chirped the little bird, chubby little legs wiggling as she grew tired of her bamboo carrier. “Where Moo-ma?”
And he’d cringe as he lied to her: “Sick, little Momo. She’s gone to buy medicine.” Then continue his slow going trek through the thigh deep water of the burgundy rice paddy. Shoulders slumping, water bugs sucking at his ankles, flies buzzing at his face, the combined weight of the little bird attached to his back and the sorrow of lying to the chirpy little girl was never too much to bear. For, you see, my brother is invincible.
It’s amazing you don’t just keel over and die.” Called a man from the edge of the paddy, with more skin than bone waggling about on his two-toned face. “I’ve got a message from the capital for you, Nest. You’d think,” he mused as he passed my brother a wood lacquer box, “the gods would eventually tire of death.”
Misfortune,” my brother said, grasping the box in both hands, “They tire of misfortune. Never death.”
And the man with the two-toned face spat into the muck.
A bitter cold swept in that night. Too cold for autumn, just right for winter. Though no snow fell, the winds howled like a woman giving birth and shook our little forest shack. My brother knelt on the threadbare tatami matting separating us from the dirt floor beneath and opened the little lacquer box. I remember it being the most expensive thing we had ever owned. It winked in the dying light of a blackened incense stick as he opened it, the little chirpy girl making shadow puppets dance in the dying light of the stick as he gasped. She did not care for pretty things as grown-ups do. But she did care for touch. She did care for love.
Moo-ma?” she whispered as the box wheezed open, “From her?”
He lifted a crinkled roll of parchment from the box’s satiny insides. The little girl spied a moth-eaten satchel that could have easily fit into the palms of both her hands.
It’s from…” he had to lie again, if only to make the little chirpy girl hope, “…Moo-ma.” He finally said, hazy eyes scanning the parchment, rolling down hastily scribbled letters. “She wants us to meet her…somewhere.”
The little girl could not understand. “Home?”
He shook his head.
Then where? The chirpy girl wondered. Where could they go and where would Moo-ma be?
My brother took the satchel and spilled it. Silver coins flooded forth, washing upon the bottom of the box like a wash of silvery waves. Tears pricked the little girl’s eyes.
What is it?” he snapped, her sniffling striking a cord within his head. “What are you unhappy about?”
Moo-ma had told them to stay—to never leave. How will she find her way back home? For the little girl knew an inkling of the truth, though feared giving words to it. Truthfully, she could not give words to it—not knowing the correct word to describe what she could only call a “death-lie”. She decided to remain silent, though her bottom lip quivered and tears fell. She hated her older brother’s attitude. I still hate it. Even to this day.
You don’t understand, and that’s okay.” He told her, though it seemed he mainly spoke to hear himself. “Moo-ma wants us to leave here—as we should have months ago. Don’t you want to go? Aren’t you tired of the bugs and the cold?”
The little bird shook her head. “Home.” She said, pointing her finger at the threadbare tatami. “Home!”
Home is here.” He said, pointing to his chest where his heart would be if he had one. “Where ever your soul is—that’s where home is.”
Of course, my brother would not know. For, though he attempted to share his idea with me, even as a child I could tell when he was lying. His face was expressionless and stoic. Cold as a Noh mask. He had as much feeling in his chest as a frozen mantis feels in its mandibles. Nothing.
Though, of course, I do not believe he thought that.
The child shook her head, “Moo-ma.” Was all she needed to say while pointing her finger at the dirt.
She would have wanted us to leave.”
Wanted? A slip of the tongue means nothing to a child. But, nevertheless, his eyes widened and he immediately regretted the word—wanted.
Look,” he said, closing the lacquer box with a snap. “We will see her in the capital—Moo-ma. You will see, little Momo. We must listen to her words and go.”
But, even as a child, I knew his words to be false. “Stay!” I snapped. “Stay, stay—stay!”
We need to stay?” he repeated coldly, narrowing his eyes. “You want to stay?”
The little girl challenged him and he did not like it. His upper lip rose, his face became pinched. He quickly became a wolf in the child’s eyes and she puffed out her chest. Child or not, she had feelings too. She had hopes and dreams and thoughts—and she wanted to stay. No matter what some letter said—she wanted to stay.
But she wasn’t the one toiling from dawn till dusk in the swampy rice paddies circling their home. She did not have a permanent hump in her back from carrying a little bird all day. Her fingers were not stripped of skin, cuts dipping dangerously close to red and white bone. She did not deal with the splintering back pain that kept him up all night, nightmares affixing themselves to the walls as sleep passed him by night after night. Only to come back during the day.
She was just a little chirpy girl. A bird. Something as trivial as a blade of grass; as the wings of a fly. If my brother decided to cut his losses and leave her on some mountain to die of cold, bitter, exposure; then he would be free. He could do as he liked.
But he made a promise to our mother, and he was not one to go back on his word.
So, when the morning came and the night’s bitter cold wove its way upon the brightening horizon, he listened to the crying and sniffling and words of hate the little chirpy girl threw at him. He let her kick and squirm in her little bamboo carrier, her tiny feet prodding his back like thousands of dull little knives. Her words hurt most of all, curses spewing from the rosebud lips of a toddler: “I hate you!” she told him. “Moo-ma will be back!” she said, repeating herself. Spitting the words over and over.
She won’t.” He said matter-of-factly, as her curses grew worse and her tears died off. “You know, she was tired of us. So, she left.” He shrugged. “Walked off into the mist.”
Liar!”
Not this time.” He swore, looking over his shoulder at her sheepishly as he trudged through rolling yellow hills. “It’s just you and me now, Momo. It always has been.”
Balling her little hands into even tinier fists, the little chirpy girl on his back bit her lower lip in silence.
The toughest lessons we learn are always selfish truths. Things that only relate to ourselves.
They are hard to accept.
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Friday, February 17, 2017

A Short Story: Lady of the House


Let us pretend the house is silent. Ignore the little squeaks beneath the floorboards. Please excuse the little mouse in the basement, for it loves to scream and cry. Please ignore the pounding sounds rising up from the tatami matting in the foyer. I promise you, it is nothing. And even if it is something and you’re forced to stop and stare, please remember—if you decide to return to my home—that these noises will not last forever. The little mouse in the basement, squeaking and squalling and calling for help that will not come; she will be gone when my husband disappears. So, in a year or so. Please, return next year.
Your hostess is Haruka Tomomi, but please feel free to call me “Tomo”. Please note that this is in exchange for my rudeness, you see. For, you will have to excuse me for a few moments while I leave the table and scurry down into the basement. No, you cannot follow. Please enjoy your stay here, my friend. I must disappear downstairs and do as my husband has ordered me. For, if the mouse dies or somehow injures herself then I will be injured as well. Why, no—not physically, you understand. So, please rid yourself of that shocked look. Maybe I’ll have a kimono taken away and burned. Maybe I’ll be sent away to the countryside, but he never harms me physically. Now, if you’ll excuse me please…
The little mouse downstairs loves to chew and bite—why, sometimes I wish my husband would simply stop bringing them around! There’s no telling where he gets them. Not from a shop or a respectable merchant, you understand, for you cannot simply buy a mouse as a pet. In fact—who would want one? Certainly not I! But if you’ll avert your eyes, my friend, my husband’s little mouse has injured herself and must be bathed. No, I cannot do it down there—I refuse to do it down there in that stink and musk. Why, mice simply shit all over the floor, did you know this? Many animals simply find a corner or some hole—but not this one! This one smears feces everywhere! My husband is not home—am I not the lady of the house while he is away? I will do it upstairs, but you will avert your eyes! Understand?
Thank you. Thank you, my dear friend. Cover your nose as well, we will have to pass through the kitchen—
Please—please let me see!”
Why, this mouse is talkative, is she not? “Shush, little mouse. You’ll be going back to your home soon.”
Let me see where I am—if you have a heart, woman, let me go!”
How easily mice believe we are manipulated. Please, excuse my little mouse. My husband has only recently brought her and she has a long year ahead of her before she is turned back to the wild again. “This way, little mouse. I am taking you to the bath.”
Why are you doing this to me?”
Why, I want to take care of you. We both know my husband won’t!”
Let me see!”
I am afraid that that would be impossible.” Can you believe it! The creature believes that I am daft! “The more you see…well, the easier it would be for you to escape.”
I’d go nowhere—please—”
Ignore her cries, they are only customary. I do what I must to make sure my dear husband is happy, now if you’ll excuse us my dear mouse desperately needs a bath…
How did my husband come across such a creature? Well, I suppose my rudeness must be rubbing off, hm? Truthfully, I haven’t a clue. In the past, he’d simply pick them off the streets near that pleasure quarter. Do you know it? Yoshiwara? There are all types of little mice there who gladly followed him home and happily lived in the basement in exchange for food and clean water. But this one—oh, she is spoiled! I have no idea where my husband found this one—what with the fire and half of Edo being rebuilt thanks to it. Yoshiwara no longer exists, yet he still finds little mice to keep and feed and f—oh, please excuse my tone. Why, my heart is beating so fast. “Come along, little mouse. If only you’d take better care of yourself.” Why, I’ve never met a creature without some sort of will. This one seems to be bent on taking her own life! And, of course, if this happened then my husband would simply turn to me and that would not be satisfactory! We have an agreement, you understand. He brings in mice and I keep my freedom as long as I take good care of them while he is away. It’s better than what most women get, believe me! We aren’t even considered people in many circles—yes! Astonishing!
I must take the little mouse back now, close your eyes, my friend.
I’m just going to escort her past and—oh!
You little bitch!”
Let me go!”
She spat on me! The little bitch spat on me!
If you kick a dog hard enough, it’ll cry and back down. I know, my husband keeps two of them and neither of them respects me. But they respect the heel of my foot. Mice are no different, though I do not have to use my feet. The heel of my hand works just as well, rammed into the place where her jaw meets her cheek. Hear how she squeals and falls to the floor in a fluster?
Will you do that again?”
What have I done to you?”
And if the dog bites back, sometimes you must use two heels. I tell you, some dogs are very strong. They have tough hides which allows them to feel no pain. Or, perhaps they feel it and are able to ignore it if they’re stuck in a blind rage. But no matter the dog, if I pick up a utensil—say a wooden pole or a knife—and slam it against the beast’s ribs, it will always back down. In some instances, it will even whimper and roll over to show me its pink belly. A mouse must be treated softly, yet sternly. But, in my ten years of caring for my husband’s mice, I’ve learned that even mice can take a good beating.
A fire iron works just as well. A hit here, to the forehead. A jab to the ribs there.
Will you do that again?”
Now, if an animal refuses to respond to you—
No, ma’am! Please—”
oftentimes, the threat of pain is a useful method to get a response.
Now, get up.”
Yes, ma’am.”
See how well she responds now? It is often quick and loud, getting an animal to respond and respect you. But, now that it is done you must close your eyes once more and allow the little mouse space as she moves back to the basement. Go on, close them! Why, I would not use the fire iron on you, my friend! Don’t give me that shocked and—well, do I detect a hint of malice? Please understand that I am simply doing my husband’s bidding! If this little mouse weren’t here taking the brunt of things for me, then I would be in her place! And it is not a place I envy, let me tell you! Are your eyes closed? Good!
Little mouse!”
Yes ma’am!”
Go home.” Which means “back to the basement”, you understand.
Please—please—I don’t want to go back down there—please!”
Listen, little mouse.” And I sigh now because I hate it when these things cry. “This will only go on for a year, understand? One year from now, my husband will leave and he will free you. You can go home then, okay?”
But—I cannot see, Miss. I’m blind—”

It won’t last forever.” I say with a blinding white smile, “Only a year.”
Please do not think me bitter and evil, but it brings me satisfaction to lie right to her pretty face. Disgusting creatures, these mice. 
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Friday, February 10, 2017

A Short Story: Boneland


While walking the dirt roads of our homeland, it is not unusual to see desolate fields of rotting men. Bodies upon bodies drifting in a sea of orange and brown and yellow. This is a natural sight. Why, you may not even bat an eye if you squash the unattached limb of a pole bearer. You may look into the glassy eyes of a corpseman and say—well, aren’t those fantastic eyes? You may see the bloated corpses of a family strung from a tree and think—well even the corpses are better dressed than I! You may see a stream or a river flowing through a smoking battlefield and think—well my canteen is empty, I might as well drink…
I say, if you see a stream floundering through these rocky paths strewn with blood and rot—do not drink from it! The water may be clear or it may be brown, but I tell you—if you drink of a stream that cuts through a battlefield, you will drink the souls of dead men. Now, you may say—why should that matter? They’ve had their rites, have they not? These corpses are simply bodies and I am thirsty! Would you rather I die of thirst, dear disambiguated voice?
Of course—no! But please understand, I am already dead. Should you really listen to the voices swimming around in your head? Why, I may be one of the corpses strewn around like misplaced banners. In fact, I will tell you that—yes! In fact, I am! So, why listen to me, dear traveler? Am I simply a ghost trying to trick you out of your drink, or am I simply trying to help my fellow man before I drift off into the great beyond? I tell you this: these men and women have had no rites. Their souls are restless and sour, much like my own. If you drink of the streams floundering through this smoke town, you will wake a monster. A monster born of the strength and ire and sour faces of those mercilessly cut down on the battlefield.
Gachi, gachi.
Can you hear it, old man?
Gachi, gachi.
Is the sun setting already? My, shouldn’t you find an inn or a temple? You’ll need something to defend you from this.
Gachi, gachi.
Why—don’t lay down in the brush of the forest! The smoke comes from its center—right where my comrades and I died! They smell blood. Putrid old flesh that dangles from the bone. Ah, the color has drained from your wrinkled face. Are you afraid? Oh, you shake your head? This monster is only a myth, you say? Then—what is that noise? That awful, awful, rattling sound? What is that noise—oh I believe the ground is shaking!
Gachi, gachi.
Leaves tumble from the trees as rain! And all you can think of is crawling into an abandoned tree trunk and praying to the goddess of the sun? Ha—let me tell you something, old man. Gods only help those who help themselves. So, perhaps it is simply your time? What mortal in their right mind goes wandering around the forest at night? What old man in his right mind wanders near a battlefield and plans to drink the water? Yes—crawl into your tree trunk and shiver! Here it comes—here we come!
Gachi, gachi!
If you peek out through your hole there, at the bottom of the tree, you will see us. A skeletal giant with a head the size of the sun! We are thousands. Thousands of souls who have been lost, scattered to the winds like so many crumbling petals. Called to fight and die for our provinces, we’ve died. We’ve waited and no one has come for us. Is it you who will send our souls on? Is it you who will free us from this skeletal monster and allow us to whisper our final goodbyes on the wind? We are hungry. Angry. We will rip you in two if you allow us! And, of course, you will allow us because we are Gashadukuro! Have a taste of our strength—rip the forest up from its roots, men!
A woman commanding me? Says a bone.
I’m not sure where I am—am I an arm, or a leg? The femur spits.
I want to be the head! This voice murmurs from a black eye socket.
Which of you is talking to the old man? The skeleton giant’s jaw goes—gachi, gachi!
Do you laugh because we argue? Because we cannot agree with each other? I tell you, there is nothing funny about this. The afterlife cares not for your alliances in life. Enemies have become elbows. Friends have become teeth. Our body, that of the gashadukuro, is made up of all and everyone who fell in this battle. A tiny war that you have never heard of nor care about. Do you laugh because we are unsure of ourselves? Do you laugh because this gigantic skeleton body simply teeters and totters and turns on itself like a dog does against its tail? Why—we could be as uncoordinated as a child that slips through the womb with a cone head! Still, we can pick you up and rip you in two as the gashadukuro does! Shouldn’t you run, old man? Run in fear of our gigantic black eyes and towering skeleton body? Should you not run—
Stop talking, Gozen! The femur spits.
Yes—we haven’t killed in ages! Don’t steal this from us! Says a bone.
I was the hand last time—why am I a tooth? Curses one crooked tooth.
Bony white fingers rip apart the forest’s canopy of green, and you believe you are safe cowering in your tipped tree trunk. Skeletal fingers creep along the forest bed, dislodging leaves and excrement. For a moment, they are tied up. Fighting with one and other—you can almost hear the voices:
Wait—wait I know you! You ripped me from chest to navel! Says a thumb
Truly? Well, I won’t apologize. I heard your comrades were worse off after your death. The ring finger titters.
Well, old man? What will you do now? They are but inches away, and your life will end in seconds. What will you do now? Run as hundreds of others have? Plea with the head? Offer us something in exchange for—well, what? What do the dead want besides revenge? Why—we do not even need to kill you. Many of us simply want to—for satisfaction, you understand. For, in death, the only thing we feel is satisfaction. It is the only thing we can feel. And satisfaction comes from stealing. Comes from blood and hearing bones crack beneath our own. We will open you like a nut and look inside. Peering into your misshapen belly will bring great delight. But only for a few minutes. And then we will search for more errant forest dwellers like you.
What will you do, old man?
You can only stop the cycle by freeing us.
Gachi, gachi.
We reach and reach. Cower in your tree trunk—we can get inside!
The fingers are stuck! The eye socket moans.
If you’d just crush it… Says the ring finger.
You will not thwart us!
The gashadukuro’s rattling hand rises and rises—only to come down with a thundering force that splits the hollowed log in two. Birds escape from the trees. The ground trembles and shakes as the aftershock of the giant skeleton’s fist raises the hairs on the back of your neck. Cower and wait, old man. We have come for you! Here is your last chance—hold men! How will you free us? Can you free us? Break this foreboding cycle?
I have nothing to offer—”
Then we have no reason to speak!
But you offer something up in those tiny hands of yours. The broken wings of a butterfly, perhaps? Ah, they are lilac in color. Gossamer and breathy. Is it—a hairpin?
Worn by the great Tomoe Gozen.”
Oh.
Oh, my.
Is that yours? Squeaks a tooth.
Why, it’s very pretty. Murmurs a rib bone.
Sometimes I forget you’re a woman. The skeleton’s jaw goes—gachi, gachi!
Why, this is mine—isn’t it? I will hold it up, old man. Ah, look how it glimmers in the dying sunlight! Why—it is almost as if the creature were truly alive! Look how it glimmers and breathes—flaps its crystalline wings on a breath of sour wind—look!
I’ve come to take your soul back.” You say.
Well, do you expect me to hop inside a hairpin?!
Gachi, gachi—goes the skeleton’s jaw as it laughs.
There is only so much one man can do.” And you clasp your hands before your chest as if you are something noble, “I hoped that that old trinket might bring you peace.”
The skeleton’s jaw drops.
Well, what a kind gesture. Says the femur.
Are we going to kill him? Rattles the jaw.
I think I’ve found out what I am! And the left arm swoops out haphazardly. It grabs the old man before I can even drop the hairpin and holds him before the sun. Gashadukuro rises and rises, standing to its full height well above the flattened forest canopy. You flail and flap out your limbs as if we will drop you. But the left hand holds you tight within its bones as the head cocks and tilts and examines you.
As it stands against the backdrop of darkening sky, the dying sun at its right, a flock of birds crowding the sky like a fog of black tar; Gashadukuro is thinking.
Gachi, gachi—goes another in the distance.
Why, there are so many of us. If we set you down, another will surely catch you. Why not sit with us awhile and tell us what you know? Begin with the story of Tomoe Gozen—
Then, Date Masamune. Says the femur.
Tell us how Oda Nobunaga fairs! The left arm says.
Has the world united, old man? Is Tokugawa Ieyasu still alive? This voice whispers from the base of the spine.
You see, we are of the world—yet no longer part of it. Tell us, have our actions been for naught? Did our deaths bring peace? Come on, old man! We’re waiting!
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Friday, February 3, 2017

A Short Story: A Small Measure of Peace

According to Kakyo, the rain is black.
When it pours, she cannot sleep. When the clouds cry, she cannot step outside.

“Well, are you going or not?” her husband shakes his flabby jowls as he leans forward, stubby legs crossed on a cushion of silk, “You tell me—I must go see my sister—and now you warn—if it rains, I will not.”

Kakyo sticks her bottom lip out, but will say no more. I hover near the doorway, it is better if they do not see me.

“You superstitious clout of a woman!” he hollers, rocking back and forth in a feeble attempt to stand. He shouldn't be cross-legged, you see. Nor should he be sitting or kneeling, as the city doctor says. There is something wrong with the fat of his thighs. Something that causes the flesh to stink and rot and turn pink or purple throughout the day as he shuffles around. This is Kakyo's fault, you see, for she refuses to pray at his ancestors' little shrine.

“I will go alone if I have to.” he warns. It is a warning and a threat, for the woman they seek to visit is on auction.

“If it rains, I will not go.” she has repeated this three times. Sometimes I fear she cannot hear herself. Her right ear is swollen shut, you see. And if you stare correctly at her husband's left hand, you will surely see how and why.

“You've said this—you've said this! Oh--”

I stand from my crouch. I bow, I am penitent, “I am sorry!” I scream out, “I just wanted to ask—can I come?” for the woman they seek to see is not only on auction, she is my sister. And on a rainy day, she was stolen from us. A long, long, time ago. The rain was black when she was spirited away.

“Dear girl, has she--?” the fat man does a double take, slipping his beady eyes from Kakyo to me, “has she given you the opportunity to even ask?” and he turns on Kakyo. Demure little Kakyo who is too big to be a woman, much less a girl. When she stands, she dwarfs him with her superior height. So, when the two enter a room, she is forced to kneel and crouch and crawl until he exits. No one may be taller than dear Akimoto-san.

Kakyo bites her lower lip, her teeth steal away the bitter paint that reddens her lips and hides their paleness. Their bruising. A slow shake of her head, followed by the dip of her chin, is all that Akimoto-san requires.

“Come here.” he beckons, “Not you, dear. Ubokakyo.”

I cower, I crouch, “I should have asked sooner, I--” but I know the routine by now. The flat of his palm silences me and tells me—if you do not close your lips, you'll find something else there closing them for you—and I take the hint. Kakyo continues to kneel, but she's crawling now. Inching forward towards her short mushroom shaped monster of a husband with her hands clasped before her chest and her head dipped down. Chin to chest. Knuckles grow white and they touch her breasts.

When he takes her, it is sudden. My heart skips and I avert my eyes, knowing that if I left it would only become worse for poor Kakyo. With me there, as a witness to his abject cruelty, he needn't do more than what pleases him. But as his stubby fingers take hold of the colorful collar of her kimono, I stand abruptly.

“This is my first time asking!” I scream. I grow a bit of courage and charge forward. Even I dwarf him, “Please, Akimoto-san—don't hurt her!” Not again—I'd scream. Not again, never again—never put your hands on my sister!

He sighs, “I spoil you.” and Kakyo drops her face to the floor, breathing as if she's just run a race, “Both of you.” he spits before lumbering out.

Of course, this is a warning of things to come. I spoil you, means I shall take things from you until you beg for my forgiveness. Both of you, uttered directly after the first means he will punish us together. Means that, in exchange for us finally going to see our dear sister, he will see us through the nine circles of hell and back. But for now, tonight, peace. Enjoy the calm that comes before the snapping strike of flint urging sparks into their wooden graves.

And then—fire.

I walk Kakyo to my room. Seating her upon the futon, I open the screen to the window adjacent and listen to her curse beneath her breath.

“It is raining.” she says, “Shut it back.”

I turn to her, “Will you let me go?” I plead, “Will you let me see our sister?”

It rained the day she was taken. Sold, truly. Though I would not learn that until I was deemed old enough by our surrogate mother. It was a common practice during the early days of strict government and futile wars. If a family lost its sole provider, the husband, the eldest son; then money dwindled. Food disappeared. And soon, a girl would be sold.

“You are unmarried, Meimei. It would be unwise.”

“Then, it's true, Kakyo? It's true she lives in Yoshiwara?” a pleasure district. One of the most prominent and popular. Yoshiwara, the Floating World.

Kakyo nods, “Now close it.” she says, “I hate the rain.”

“I want to go.” I snap, “And I will not close it. Perhaps it's time you got over your silly superstitions!”

When Kakyo looks up, she is sneering. But I know that this is only her face. It is constantly stuck between a twisted scowl or a sneer. Somewhere along these long and brutal years, she has forgotten how to smile. Perhaps it hurts to pull up the sides of her lips. Perhaps her face would break as easily as porcelain if she tried.

I relent, “I understand you have a plan for me, Kakyo, but it has been four years! I want to see her!”

“And you would forfeit all of your prospects just to see her?” Kakyo spits, “My husband is a rich man--”
“And a tyrant!”
If Kakyo were a cat, her tail would be straight and twitching. She would show me her sharp incisors and narrow those curved yellow eyes as she prepared to rake me from nose to naval.

But she is not a cat. She is much worse.

She presses her lips into a firm line and stands. Shoves me aside, raking my neck with her sharp nails, and snaps the window shut.

“You may go.” she says, turning.

I grin, “Truly, Kakyo?”

But—she holds up a finger.

My grin capsizes. There is always a catch.

“For the next five days, starting tomorrow...” and she trails off. Smiles wickedly and points her finger at me. She mouths, you.

And I know immediately what she is swearing me to. She knows as well, and I know this because her face darkens when my mouth drops open. When I move to shake my head—to do everything in my power not to scream, no!--she is moving in on me. Closing the distance as she shoves me away, catches me as I trip backwards, and rams her nails so deeply into my shoulders that I cry out.

“The scars on my body—the bruises on my face—every one of them has been for you! Now, you tell me, in exchange for seeing our dear sister—you can't do this one thing for me? You can't give me a small measure—a tiny speck—of peace?”

“No—I can't. You chose this man—you must sleep in your own bed.”

“He doesn't want my bed—why do you think he frequents Yoshiwara, hm? He wants something younger...fresher—why--I'm sure he wouldn't even beat you!”

I shrug her hands away, “Nothing—nothing is worth that!”

“You haven't seen Reika in four years, Meimei. She has probably changed, you know—no, she definitely has. Every woman living within that district is a whore, sister. Though they may attach fancy titles to themselves and wear layers upon layers of priceless kimono; they still spread their legs for money. They are what they are, and you tell me that you won't do the same to see your sister? Why, you would be one and the same, you two.”

One and the same. I resist the urge to spit at her.

“Five days, Mei. That is all I ask. Five days of peace.” please hung on her lips. Her murky eyes began to squint as she brought her hands to her chest, “There is only so much one woman can take.”

“I know.” I know, I know.

Guilt riddled me from the moment she married him. It slunk along my spine now, crawling along to my skull only to rest in the pocket of my scalp.

Ubokakyo is weak. The thought came to me immediately. I look at her now and I see nothing of the older, stronger, sister Reika and I both knew. Would Reika even recognize Ubokakyo now? So bony and bent, crouched over like a woman nearing her death—not one supposedly in the prime of her life. A woman in her late twenties should not look so beaten and despondent. She should be full of happiness. She should have a child hanging on her arm and one on the way. She should be rosy cheeked and full. But Ubokakyo...

“He beats you because you are barren.” and I slap my hands to my mouth—how could I say such a thing?

If your womb weren't cursed, I remember him hissing as they both kneeled before the city doctor, then maybe we could have children, Ubokakyo. Please—just pray before my ancestors' shrine! Just once!

I will do it when the sun shines, she retorted back. Of course, this was her way of saying—no and never. Never will I subject myself to your family.

The truth is as black as the rain. And it creates a scar within Ubokakyo's floundering soul. He beats you because you are barren—what a horrid thing to say! But she takes it with narrowed eyes and a lifted chin. Always the proud one, my Kakyo.

“He beats you because you are bitter and prideful and refuse to listen to no one's advice but your own!”
I am crying. Tears leave my eyes as quickly as the truth leaves my mouth. And she can do nothing.

“Please, let me see my sister. Please, let me leave this place!”

“You hate it here.”

“I want to be with her!”

“Then I will give you to her master, Mei. Let me sell you and treat you just as you treat me. The world seems bent on beating me down, so why don't I give you a little taste of the bitterness I've been fed ever since Reika left, hm?” she turns. Oh, she turns and storms over to the latch before the sliding door to my room and screams as she rams her fist into the wood. Over and over, she goes at it. Trying to break my little lock before it finally screams and creaks. Splinters rain upon the tatami matting and she throws my door open wide. She rattles the panel. She's making so much noise that young maids come rushing up the hallway. But all they do is stare. All they do is exchange glances with one and other and attempt to slowly back away. Some stay. Some give me a pitying look.

But I do not need their pity. I have brought this upon myself.

Kakyo stops when the screen falls to the hallway outside. She looks at me, eyes fierce and flashing, “Goodnight.”
The rain is as black as her soul, I think as she charges away. Shoving her way through the four maids gawping at my broken door, I move to my futon. I sit.

Farther down the hallway, I hear her scream. I hear her screech and beat her chest, and work her magic on other locked doors. Paper is ripping. Matting is being thrown apart. My sister is a black tsunami of rage as she tears her husband's house apart.

And I wonder, how hard will he beat her tonight?

***
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