The Ushi Oni
The crowd of onlookers parted as InuYasha walked to the veranda. He left the guesthouse and headed for the shade of the tree he had glimpsed earlier. Finding a place that let him have a good view of the building, he settled down at the base of the tree and leaned against its trunk. Watching him watch them, the onlookers gathered there began to drift off, talking about work and home. The hanyou was a bit surprised that only a few of them gave him a pointed look, but all of them avoided coming close to the tree. It only took a few minutes until the area near the guesthouse was nearly empty. A few diehards stayed to listen to the negotiations. Beyond that, there was only a small boy playing not far from where the hanyou sat.
InuYasha smiled and watched him with interest. The boy was a little younger than his own son, maybe seven years old. His clothes showed how he had been playing in the dirt, and he had a smear of something on one cheek. But what really caught the hanyou’s attention was how he was holding a small wooden carving of a horse and was acting out some story about a hero and his magic steed who defeated all his evil enemies. Somehow, InuYasha suspected Atae was doing something similar right now, and driving Kagome to distraction while he was doing it.
Suddenly, the boy seemed to realize he was not alone, and looked up, meeting InuYasha’s eyes. He looked at him quizzically, taking in his silver hair and triangular ears and amber eyes. He got off his knees and squatted, stuffing his wooden horse into his shirt.
“You’re really different. Are you a good guy or a villain?” the boy asked. “I’ve never seen anybody who looks like you before.”
“Keh,” InuYasha replied. “I guess that’s because I am different. I think I’m a good guy. I’m here to help get rid of the bad youkai.”
“Oh, I heard about that. My daddy told me about that youkai. He tore stuff up in one of our fields and knocked over the tree I liked to climb best.” The boy sighed. “He’s really strong.” He scratched the tip of his nose, then wrinkled his eyebrows as if trying to come to a decision. “If you’re here to fight that youkai, you must be a hero then.” The boy stood up and walked nearer. “What’s your name?”
“InuYasha,” the hanyou replied.
“InuYasha.” The boy smiled, mulling the name over. “I like it. It goes with your ears. My name’s Yoshi. You must be really strong if you can fight the youkai.”
“Yeah, maybe.”InuYasha returned his smile. “Good to meet you, Yoshi. You remind me of my son. He likes to play like you do. His favorite story is about the Peach Boy.”
“I like that story,” Yoshi declared, sitting down in front of InuYasha. “You have a son?”
InuYasha nodded solemnly. “And a daughter, too.”
“Where are they?” the boy asked. “Can I play with them? Do they have ears and hair like you?”
“Atae would like that,” InuYasha said, “But they’re back home with their mother.”
“Oh.” Yoshi looked disappointed. “Where’s home?”
InuYasha pointed back towards Inumura. “About three days away that way.”
“That’s a long way away,” Yoshi declared. “I’ve never been more than one day away from the village.”
Suddenly, a woman shrieked. InuYasha looked up to see the woman hurry towards them. His smile faded at the look of panic in her face.
“Uh oh, I think I’m in trouble,” Yoshi said, standing up. “Hi, Mama.”
She was a pretty woman, but thin. The scarf she wore over her hair made her look even thinner, and heightened the anxiety she was trying to mask. “Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry my son was bothering you,” she said. Her voice was soft, but he could hear the emotion concealed in it even as she bowed politely. She then turned, grabbing Yoshi’s arm, and began towing the boy behind her.
“He wasn’t – ” InuYasha began, but let his voice fade away as she moved away. The woman began to berate her son as they walked down the path away from the village center, tugging him by one hand as they hurried away from the tree. He couldn’t help hearing her voice as she dragged the boy along.
“What have I told you about wandering off?” she hissed in an angry whisper.
“But I just wanted to see – ” Yoshi began, louder.
“And then I find you talking to a youkai! We don’t go around talking to youkai! It’s dangerous! Look what happened to Dai!” she said in an angry whisper.
“But he’s here to fight the bad monster!” Yoshi protested. “He’s a hero!”
“He’s a youkai. That means he’s dangerous! You saw what that youkai did to our field! Wait until I tell your father!”
The hanyou sighed as they disappeared behind a building, and leaned his head against the trunk of the tree. His ear twitched as he heard soft footsteps move towards him.
“You must forgive Chiyo, InuYasha-sama. Ever since we had the army come through the village last year, she’s been frightened of her own shadow,” said a voice on his right. “She spent a week with the other young women holed up in a cave, and when she came out, her younger brother and father were gone. First the soldiers, and now this. No wonder some of the people are wondering if our village has been cursed.”
InuYasha looked up at the young man standing there, leaning his shoulder against the tree trunk. It was the same young man who had come to them with the story of the village’s need for youkai exterminators. In the three days they had traveled together, the hanyou found himself warming to him and his calm and gentle sense of humor. Thin and wiry, his face had already gotten that weathered look from long days in the sunshine and hard times, but there was a peace in his eyes that InuYasha envied.
“Keh,” InuYasha said, standing up. “So, Hideo, how’s your family? Everybody all right?”
“They’re doing fine. My Tatsume is still expecting, my mother still thinks she rules the roost, and my daughter gave me flowers. My oldest son has lost his first tooth. He saved it to show me.” He grinned. “They fed me and bathed me and made me promise not to leave the village again, at least not to the next market day.” Looking around the green and seeing so few people about, he asked, “Where is Houshi-sama?”
InuYasha nodded in the direction of the guesthouse. “He’s in there, talking with the elders.”
“Ah,” said the young man. “No doubt Takeshi-sama will be giving him some hard bargaining. It is said he pinches every grain of rice three times before he lets it get away from him.”
InuYasha laughed. “Miroku has his own reputation for separating people from their rice. It’ll be interesting to see how it all turns out.”
“Indeed,” said the young man. “I’m surprised so few people are watching. Usually the village loves to watch Takeshi-sama. You should see him in action when it’s time to sell the rice for tax money.”
InuYasha stuck his hands in his sleeves. “Might be my fault. I think some of the people watching thought I was going to eat them for dinner when I came out here to sit under the tree.”
“I’m sorry,” said the young man. “The village is a bit jumpy right now.”
“Not your fault,” InuYasha said. “Most villages are jumpy when they’re having youkai problems. I don’t make them feel any easier. That’s the way it’s always been.” He shrugged.
“Still,” said Hideo. “Maybe you and Houshi-sama should come and – ”
His words were interrupted suddenly by a loud bellow echoed over the hills, followed by another, and another, and another. It was the type of sound that made men shiver. The two men froze in place listening.
“The youkai?” InuYasha asked.
“Yes, that was the oni,” said Hideo. “His voice travels a long, long way. He must be getting hungry again. If they don’t feed him again by tomorrow, who knows what damage he’ll do?”
“He’s got a big mouth,” InuYasha noted.
People began coming in from the fields when they heard the youkai, and others left their houses. As they passed the two men sitting by the tree, InuYasha asked, “So what happens next?”
“Oh, they’ll spend the next three hours arguing about who needs to donate what to feed the monster next,” Hideo replied, sitting down next to the hanyou. He pointed at a knot of men gathering on the path near the guest house. “Watch – they’re all going to be heading for the headman’s house, and drink up his sake while they argue about it.” As he spoke, the village elders left the guest house, following the headman. The men gathered already followed him, discussing what they had already donated. Other men left their houses to join up with him. “In the end, he’ll donate less than the rest, but they’ll all feel it’s fair because he let them get drunk sitting in his garden.”
“How come you’re not joining them?” InuYasha asked.
Hideo laughed. “I don’t like to get drunk. I’ll have to donate whatever they put me down for anyway. This way, I save Takeshi-sama the cost of his sake, and I’ll feel better in the morning.” He scratched his chin. “I think Takeshi-sama appreciates it. My share has always been a little less than I expected.”
“Wise man,” InuYasha replied.
InuYasha stood up. “I better see what Miroku’s doing.”
Hideo joined him as they walked towards the guest house. “Why don’t we get that monk of yours and go to my house for dinner? Tatsume is a much better cook than Aka is.”
“You have your own ways of wanting to live dangerously, I see,” InuYasha said, stepping out on the verandah. “You haven’t seen how much our friend can eat when the food is good.”
“Maybe so,” Hideo said. “But think of the good karma I’m earning.”
To be continued...