Chapter Three: Soulsickness
The Lady Yayoi walked through the gardens to rest near her favorite seat, an old and weathered boulder that had been part of the gardens before the keep was first built.
The Kami of this place was a kind and gentle spirit, and whenever she was troubled or worried, the lady had learned that if she sought refuge here, she would always find something, some help for her soul or answer, a dream or a touch or a sign or a kind word.
She bowed and clapped three times to let the Kami know she was there. Her heart was troubled, and in her troubles, she let her beautiful robes of silk fall away, and she stepped forth in her fox form in a shimmer of white fur, then jumped on the rock and curled into a ball. Things were simpler in this form. She found herself relaxing on the sun warmed stone. Worries about weddings and lovers and bad dreams were alien to her in that form, and she could rest.
The breezes brought interesting smells to her nose...the food being fixed for the feast, the smells of the animals in her garden, and the anger of someone nearby. This smell troubled her, but thinking about it was too hard and she was too drowsy on the rock, and she let the sunlight send her to sleep.
Her consciousness drifted, and she shifted into the realm of dreams, chasing something, brown and quick footed, like a chipmunk. She followed the creature in her dreams to a place of light. Suddenly the chipmunk was replaced by a being of light, too shining and brilliant for her to make out with her fox eyes, a figure that sat down on the sun-warmed boulder. For some reason, Yayoi felt the compulsion to jump up and sit next to this person. The being of light leaned over slightly, sighed, and gently rubbed her head, then ran a soft hand down her back.
“Ah, Yayoi, you have come, I see,” said the voice, soft and welcoming. “I wish you had come here in your human form. I might have been able to help you more. So much jealousy and hurt are running through your family now. Brother against sister, sister against mother’s brother.”
The fox Yayoi yipped softly, as if in agreement.
“I cannot stop the flow of Karma. Your people have a destiny beyond the reach of my small area of influence. Each person who is caught in this web must find their own path to walk between the dark and the light. Yet because you know this, and ask nothing but solace, I will give you my blessing. Maybe it will be enough. Maybe you will see tomorrow.”
The Kami began to softly sing:
"Pass through, yes, pass through
And where will this path lead you?
Take this winding road,
Hand in hand carry your load
This road to tomorrow.
"Pass through, yes, pass through,
And will you know what to do?
The foxes stand guard,
The winter wind is very hard
On the road to tomorrow..
"Pass through, yes, pass through.
Going they will let you through
The foxes in red,
Returning might see you dead
You cannot escape tomorrow."
The fox fell into true sleep. When she woke up half an hour later, she was alone.
Excerpted from The Tale of the Last Feast
The night is our true element, we bakemono. Youkai if you will, magic creatures.
The veils of Shinkiro are thinner at night. There is less that can be seen...some even that the night or the moon or the stars call out...children of Yomi sneak, sometimes, out of their pits, others lose the covering that hides them by day. The creatures that mankind fear are always closer, even the ones of they create out of their own flesh and blood and lusts and hates. Poor souls doomed to become youkai in their own right one day, or yurei preying on the shadows. Those odors, the scent of loss and lust and corruption call to us, we the tools of the Kami who hover near to keep the darkness in check...those scents beg us to wrap our magic around that fabric of darkness in their lives and laugh when they realize just how weak and foolish and pathetic they really are.
Thus it has always been in the interactions of human and the magic realm.
In the old days, they would warn themselves to avoid graveyards because they were pained the loss of their dear ones and frightened by their guilts. Thus we learned the magic power hidden there. They would fear the long distances between villages, the beautiful and haunted wildernesses where there was naught but wasteland and bandits, so youkai learned to hide behind every tree or in every deserted hut. They spun tales of how we would trick them in the dead of night, leading them astray by foxfire and song and deception to make light of them or worse.
And in truth, we often did.
But even more, we walked among them, disguised in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to pounce, to entice, to feed on their sins and fears and embarrassment, often in the midst of their villages and cities and temples and homes. Where their hearts were dark, we would feed.
Tonight reminds me of a night long ago. She sat in the garden, her long hair cascading to the ground, her slight frame wrapped up in a fine silken robe. She had carried a lantern with her, but she was sitting in the shadows where those in the house were least likely to see her.
Tonight, while the moon is full and the air is warm, her memory comes back to haunt me. It teases me, that memory, as I catch a scent so much like hers, long ago, a scent of wanting and pain and disappointment, tinged with jasmine. That scent fills my senses, edging my appetite. “Nyoko,” I whisper.
This is a part of town others avoid at night, abandoned to the poor and the foreign and those who seek the thrills that chemicals bring to their little minds. I can smell it, the taint of meth, the misery of cheap sex, the anxiety of those who have gone past their bodies’ tolerences. So different from that garden in a far away land. Yet is was every bit as much a place of despair.
I step out of the shadows, and wrap myself well with Shinkiro, the mirage. I become what someone would expect - young, blond, hungry. My clothing black and leather and chrome, sliding in and out of the shadows as I walk. My boots sound heavy on the sidewalk as I follow that scent.
There she is. Pale, pale, washed out. There are circles under her eyes, need and hunger within them. Her clothes hang limply on her, as if bought for a larger person. Yet even through the haze the drugs she use create in her mind, I see the spark, the light of the soul within that could have walked with her down a much different path. Such a beautiful soul light, even if it is hazed by what she does light. I stare at her eyes, admiring her what could have been self.
I warm my psyche at her soul light. I had a soul once. They promised me I could have it again, but so many years have gone, I wonder if the Kami will ever remember that promise.
I wonder, really, if it would make any difference.
The woman, made uncomfortable, finally, at my staring at her, smiles uneasily. She walks up, rests her hand on my chest. “Want a good time, Mister?” she asks in a slurred voice.
“Maybe,” I replied. “How good?”
She laughed a little. I had made her nervous. “Counts how much you wanna spend,” she said.
I breathe deeply. Her scent sends me back. I see Nyoko She is looking into the shadows and sees someone else. His eyes lit up in the lamplight when he stepped into the circle of her lamp.
“You came,” she whispered to him. “I wasn’t sure if you could make it past the guards.”
“You coming?” the woman in front of me asks.
I nod . She slips her arm around mine and tugs me into a hall-way, leading me into a grey and grimy room. It has an unmade bed in it, of a rumpled blue and brown striped sheet and green coverlet, and a pile of clothes in the corner. There are empty beer cans on a small table. The air is musty with the smells of multiple ruttings, beer, and something else...despair, maybe.
Ah Nyoko, how your scent spiked that night – when your eldest brother and uncle dashed out of the wood and grabbed Yashou, how Father carried you off back to the house. Why do I see you as I look into this woman’s eyes even as she demands payment before we even start? You asked for nothing and we took it all away from you. No wonder your hatred for us glowed like a torch.
I reach into my pocket, where I have a leaf. Covering it with Shinkiro, I turn it into the sum she demands. I watch as she tucks it away. She turns back to me, and smiles with a smile that never reaches her eyes. I reach out, cup her face in both my hands, let my mask drop bit by bit. Her eyes grow wide as fox eyes stare into her all so human ones. Claw tipped, my hands, almost paws keep her from moving. Her mouth moves, as if to make a sound. But by that time, it is too late. Having no so soul, I feed upon her life force, pulling all that she is into my being. With one last sigh, she crumples. I let her fall. Wiping my face with the back of my hand I watch as her soul, no longer so hazy, ascends to elsewhere.
I remember Nyoko staring into the darkness of her room. Her soul was very black, that night.
In a place that only intersected the world humans knew, a rat trailed ahead, sniffing as it meandered. No mirages formed here; the light was perfectly pure and no trace of Shinkiro had any sway. All things surround it were in their truest forms. Behind the rat a man walked. They were moving through a narrow trail in a deep forest, and the air was filled with the sweet scent of pine and wrapped with deep shadows. Brown needles crunched under the man’s feet as he moved further along the trail which moved steadily, but slowly uphill. He could hear the sound of running water, but not make out the stream through the woods.
"She always did like this place," he muttered, “Although I never understood quite why."
The man plopped himself down on a large rock and looked down the trail to see how far he had climbed, happy to feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun on his face. His face was kind and open, and obviously used to smiling, and a cloth cap flopped a bit to one side on his head.The rat noticed him sitting and came up and nuzzled his leg.
"Hungry, friend? Let me see what we've got today."
Opening his bag, he took out a rice ball, and gave a large part of it to the rodent who sat there and ate it happily. Off in the distance, he began to hear the soft sounds of a lute playing, melodic and melancholy, and then came the the soft touch of her aura as it drifted out as soft and as lovely as the sweet notes of her music.
"Ignore the darkness," came a gentle voice singing.
"Ignore the darkness
that keeps us apart, my love,
ignore the shadow --
let no curtain hide,
let no barrier divide
the way of your feet to me."
"Ah, friend Nezumi, I do believe that the lovely lady wants to see us," he said. Opening a silver flask, he took a long drink, then stood up, reshouldering his large white bag. "Are you refreshed? Ready?"
The rat nodded and they began to walk.
As they neared the air grew heavy with the sweet smell of jasmine and water. Nezumi the rat meandered down the trail, ignoring the man as he entered a clearing. Before him, a pool of water spread out, rippling with the wind. Near the edges, where the water was stiller, lotus grew. At the far end, a small trickle of water cascaded down the rock face from some secret spring in the cliff behind it.
The music he had been listening to as he entered the clearing faded and stilled. Two women left the shadows, one dressed all in white graced with a fine blue sash obi, with a finely worked uchikage with silver blossoms worked into the design training behind her. She stood there graceful and regal, with shining ebony hair that fell in a cascade nearly to the ground Her companion was smaller, obviously kitsune, hiding behind a painted foxmask. Her hair fell in a long midnight cascade nearly to the ground. She was dressed in dark blood red.
“Daikokuten, welcome," said the woman in white. As the light dimmed with the growing twilight, she seemed to glow with a certain inner light. "Please convey my apologies to Nezumi. My foxes are busy on errands right now and he will not be able to play with them."
Daikokuten's eyes twinkled. "Ah, poor rat. He always so enjoys tormenting your foxes, Benzaiten."
She smiled, laughter in her black eyes. "One day, they will catch him, Koku. Then what will you do?"
In this place, free from the miseries of illusion or deceit, where two of the gods of luck bantered happily back and forth, it should have been impossible to feel anything but happiness, the Kitsune woman radiated deep melancholy. Nonetheless, she rolled out a fine blue mat, then helped Benzaiten kneel, fanning out her kimono skirts gracefully, sitting near at hand. Benzaiten gestured for Daikokutan to join her, which he did, plopping on the ground with a satisfied sigh. Nezumi finally caught up to him and ran up to his shoulder.
“I believe the Guardian has almost caught up with Sachio,” he said.
The Kitsune woman produced a small table, and followed that with tea and sweetmeats. Benzaiten poured for Daikokuten. He picked up the cup and sipped it appreciatively.
"This time was foretold," said the Kitsune.
"Yes, Nyoko," said Benzaiten. “It is time for the endgame. He wrought, you wrought, now I shall. Be ready.”