by Jay Hill
Shirasawa stepped out of the forest and onto the dirt path. Through
the trees and around the next bend, she could see the thatched roof of
a small red building. No more than a hut really, but the smell of
peanut oil heating in a wok, wafting from the tiny hovel pulled her
towards it. Before she even realized it, she was putting one bare foot
in front of the other, softly padding her way to the warm and fetching
With no concern for the lithe girl lingering outside the door, the
cook tossed a handful of chopped onions into the wok. The sizzle
startled Shirasawa and she jumped back into the tree line with a tiny
mew, the soft shriek of a frightened kitten.
Standing behind a medium sized dogwood tree, she heard the sound of
a blade chopping rapidly through a finger of carrot. Another. Then a
shaft of celery, a leek, a clove of garlic. Another sizzle and all of
these ingredients landed in the wok. The cook gave them all a stir with
a single chop stick, working the vegetables through the hot oil with a
simple flourish of her wrist. Shirasawa's stomach growled loudly. She
was sure the sound could be heard throughout the small slip of forest
between the tumbling hills and the shaded hamlet.
The sun peaked over a mist-covered knoll in the distance, casting a
bright amber ray on her pale feet. She took it as a fortuitous sign and
bounded from the low tousle of juniper and scrub brush, announcing her
presence to the cook and her wonderful talent.
Inside the hut, there was no wok however, no cutting surface, no
fresh vegetables, no blade, nobody. Only the smell of dank dust and
rotting grey timbers. She cursed the hallucination that led her from
her reprieve in the forest and turned to leave the tiny cabin. Clank! The shackle was on her wrist before she registered the form moving swiftly in front of her.
Clank! Another metal clasp fastened and she raised the cuffs
in front of her. Her hands were bound with an old pair of iron
bracelets, joined in the center by a battered chain.
"You're mine now," the crone declared. "Pretty thing."
Shirasawa looked down at the bent form in a rough spun over wrap and cussed the thing to its face.
"Well aren't you vile as well?" the witch answered. "Who taught you such words, starling?"
The young girl looked away, shifted her jaw in a defiant gaze and set her posture against the binding.
"They teach you to fight too?"
The quarterstaff came at her from an angle she never expected. The
hag brought it up and out from the folds of her cloak, whirled it in a
tight circle and struck the younger girl right in the middle of her
upper arm. A hard blow, but not one that would do any permanent damage.
Still, Shirasawa never saw it coming, but she winced in pain once it
The staff spun over her head and whirled around her opposite
shoulder then delivered a second blow mid thigh. Again, only a warning,
but the pain was incredible.
"Would you like another lesson, little finch?" the hunched old shrew
asked. "I've got plenty of time to teach you, if you desire it."
A wash of tears filled Shirasawa's eyes. She tried to blink them
away, but they shook loose from her delicate lids and careened down her
cheeks and onto the dirty ground beneath her. She'd come to the coast
looking for the spirit of Miyabe, her betrothed husband, defeated in a
battle against the willow spirits for the maple grove where they lived
together, his soul sent wandering the woodlands. She'd vowed to find
his ghost and lead it home, so that they could somehow finish their
wedding ceremony and take their place in the community. She'd even
spoken with the venerable Lantern Willow himself, and he had pointed
her in this direction.
The crone pulled the chain between her wrists, snapping her out of
her reverie. Shirasawa looked down and for the first time, saw the
embattled cheeks, the worn and wrinkled eye sockets, the dark black
irises surrounding a milky pair of translucent pupils.
"Hai, blind, I am," the creature spoke, "But I've already had the better of you twice this morning."
Surprised by the thing's irreverent honesty, Shirasawa sucked a shallow breath into the top of her chest.
"It's alright, my wren," the illusionist answered, "You're not the
first to underestimate old Gokayama." The thing beneath the cloak
chuckled. "Doubt you'll be the last either. Now find us some kindling.
I want to make a real breakfast before we head to the market."
"The market?" Shirasawa asked.
"Yes, yes my brown eyed quail," the woman answered. "You're no use
to me as a serving girl. I'll sell you to one of the geisha houses and
they'll finish you off with some manners and proper learnin'. Make you
look nice and pretty for the old fat gentlemen up the coast."
"But I --"
"Teach you to make tea and write haiku, walk in the garden," she
prattled on without regard for Shirasawa's objection. "Make you a nice
little flower, ripe for the pickin'."
The quarterstaff erupted from behind a fold in the old woman's
cloak. It caught Shirasawa in the back of the legs, stinging her
hamstrings, pulling tears from her eyes again.
"Firewood!" the crone barked. "And be quicker about it. Much
quicker, unless you want to the staff to teach you things you never
thought you'd learn. The ache of a broken bone or two might do you some
Gokayama bent over a depression in the dirt clearing in front of the
shack. She pulled a tumble of fist-sized stones from it and placed them
in a circle, restoring the outline of an ancient fire pit. She spoke an
incantation, some Japanese, some Latin and a harsh guttural language
that Shirasawa had never heard. After the words were finished, a bright
glow flared beneath the pile of leaves set in the middle of the circle.
In seconds, a shallow thatch of yellow fire cracked and spit its way
around the paltry fuel. Watching from the corner of her eye, Shirasawa
collected a few sticks, fallen branches no thicker than a finger and
she dumped them next to the woman huddled over the hollow spot in the
cold ground. From the folds of her cowl, the conjurer produced a small
iron kettle and a makeshift stand for suspending it over the fire. In
another fold, she found a clutch of withered leeks, a gnarled carrot, a
knob of garlic clove and a small paring knife. She trimmed the unwashed
vegetables and chunked them into the kettle. A spark of flame crept up
and licked the bottom of the pot, but the smell was not the savory
aroma that drew Shirasawa from the safety of the forest. It was a
bitter scent instead, one that filled her nostrils with the sharp
fragrance of stale urine.
"More wood, you warbling stork!" This time Shirasawa hurried. Three
blows from the staff had taught her to respond when the crone gave an
order. Pain and duress, force and will, the human condition answers
these with obedience.
"What were you doing in the forest alone before dawn anyway?"
Shirasawa plucked a thin shaft of oak from a heap of maple leaves, cradling it in her arms along with several others.
"Gathering fire wood," she answered.
The witch laughed a wet cackle that rattled the phlegm in her withered lungs.
"Well then you shouldn't seem so indignant about things."
Shirasawa grunted her displeasure.
"Probably saved you from the willow spirits anyway. Dewy bird like
you. They'd pull your chicken wings apart. Drink your blood after taking your purity. At least I'm going to give you a chance to sell it for what it's worth."
Across the open hollow beneath the boughs of red pines, white pines,
spruce trees and daimyo oaks, Shirasawa caught a glimpse of a rabbit
skittering away in the tall grass. Beyond the line of trees, the
underbrush rustled in the places where the little creature thumped its
way forward. This was how Miyabe knew the rabbit's intended course when
he caught it the night they'd celebrated their betrothal. This was how
he knew to anticipate and interpret the small animal's path. He changed
shapes then, slipped from the bonds of human existence and became a
spirit, formless, free of the limitations of physical structure,
un-tethered and wild. He slid through the air, faster than an ocean
breeze and came up beneath the rabbit, taking his human form again,
with the creature gently cradled in his thick arms. Shira, he called her. You'll never catch a rabbit, if you can't sense its course.
The words echoed in her mind and the pain of losing him shivered its
way through her chest and arms, bringing goose pimples to her flesh.
She ached for him, she cried for home, the maple grove and the
sovereign protection of her would-be husband.
"I'll have those twigs now," the spell-binder called. "Or would you rather chase rabbits all day?"
Shira bowed her head and shuffled her feet in the leaves, carrying
her load back to the small camp fire, a frail wisp of girl, porting a
bundle of sticks beneath the arching boughs.
Out on the road, the devil woman pulled a pipe from a pocket in her
shroud. From another clutch, she produced an old leather bag of
tobacco. Her bony fingers extracted a wad of the moist brown leaves
from the pouch, tamped them down into the bowl and she recited the same
unusual incantation to light the works. To Shirasawa, the smoke was
beautiful and blue, floating up like a fog over the surface of a
mountain pond on a cool morning; and the smell drifted like a light
spring breeze, redolent of cherry blossoms. But the old woman quickly
heaved over in a series of thrashing coughs. She bent and hacked,
folded at the waist and spewed a frothy stream of bubbly mucus.
Then to Shira's surprise, the crone straightened up and raised the
pipe to her lips to smack another deep inhalation, the stem clicking
loudly against the sparse teeth in her red gums. The old hag clamped
her mouth shut, puffed the pipe and repeated the coughing spasm all
"Ever think it might be time to give it up?" Shirasawa asked.
The soothsayer patted her chest with a loose fist, regaining composure for a second.
"Why doesn't the little bird know better than to chirp and tweet all day long?" She snorted a loud harrumph, hacked it up and spit it on the ground in front of Shirasawa's feet. "Would that you were a plum blossom. Hai. Then you'd have no tongue to cluck at me all the way to Matsue."
They walked in silence for a while. Walked and walked some more.
Occasionally, the illusionist tried her pipe again, but it seemed like
the fun had gone out of it with the last round of coughing.
As they walked, Shirasawa smiled at the winding roads, the rolling
hills, the thick folds of trees and meandering paths of streams. Her
eyes beamed at the perfectly ordered beauty of a Nippon she'd
only imagined. She saw plum and cherry blossoms, wisteria, gingko,
elms, pines and great oak trees. She saw freshly-built pagodas,
newly-painted and shining in the mid-morning sunlight. She saw blue
skies, stippled with puffs of white clouds that gathered and formed in
rows, striated across the rounded horizon. She saw birds rise against
the backdrop of clouds and fall headlong into the billowy canopy of
trees. She smelled the broad scents of cherry, plum and the freshness
of rural streams and airy clearings. She sensed the presence of all
these things flowing around her, felt the force of their life shining,
even in her captivity.
"You'd be a lotus flower beside a stream, if the universe willed
it," the sorceress snapped. "Holding your head up high to catch the
sun." The crone reached up and folded her cold fingers over the bare
flesh of Shirasawa's arm.
The girl recoiled from the touch, felt the sharp blackness of it
blink in her mind's eye, a dark so deep and so real that it had no
boundaries. The echo of its image resounded throughout her conscious
thought like a scream, a silent shout that started in the pit of her
stomach and fought its way through her lungs and out of her gaping
mouth. The gloom, the sheer terror of total blindness, an infinite
night with no light, chilled her to the inner most core of her being.
Shirasawa shuddered at the harsh dimness and she pulled away as if
"That's what I see," the witch said. "Hai, that's what I see all the time."
"Why would you show me that?"
"Because the darkness can be beautiful too," the old crone answered. "It all depends on one's perspective."
Shirasawa shook her head as if she'd just tasted something bitter and repulsive.
"You do that," the medium said, knowing the gesture without seeing
it. "You do that and keep telling yourself that it feels good to turn
your nose up at the darker things. But everything in this world knows
both darkness and the light. You know that now, but if you live long
enough, you will understand what it truly means."
The girl Shira kept shaking her head in denial, but the woman kept talking.
"One day, some part of darkness will be your friend, whether it's a
shadow that conceals you when some other bad thing comes to take you or
a crow that brings you news of some faraway threat, or maybe a powerful
rage that allows you to do what you never thought possible. One day you
will need the darkness, and it will not be so horrible then. You'll
She stopped for a minute to consider her own words. Shirasawa continued to stare at her in disbelief.
"Hai," the witch continued, "You will find that the dark, it has its uses too."
She resumed her shuffling gait, one spindly leg moving after another.
"One day, hai. One day," the old lady cackled.
For the briefest of moments, Shira wondered how such a thing came to
be, how a woman, who'd once been a young girl, presumably something
like herself, arguably innocent, maybe naïve, how that girl became the
gnarled and sinister shell of a person ambling beside her. In that
passing instant, she wondered what the thing that called herself
Gokayama had been like before the evil took root in her soul.
Literally, Shirasawa wanted to know if the witch had ever been a girl
just like her, a young woman desperate and tragically in love. She
wondered if anyone had called her by a pet name, some shortened version
of Gokayama, like Miyabe called her Shira. It was then that she
realized the old thing beside was tired and worn down, that she was
pulling it along, not the other way 'round. The clouts with the
quarterstaff may have stung, but there was no real strength in the
decrepit fishwife beside her.
"Just keep thinking that," the witch hummed. "Keep thinking that and it'll get you another lesson in the end. Stupid bird."
Shira glanced at the weary mound sauntering along the path and
noticed the sun stood directly above them. For a second, just one
flashing jot in time, the image of the crone's shadow became that of a
fox trotting along on four legs, instead of a feeble woman in a
It took all of the resolve in her body to stifle the gasp, but Shirasawa swallowed her emotion with a spine-wracking effort.
"Walk on, you stubborn heron," the conjurer said. "I know you've
gone all weepy-eyed over me, but it's to market with you, just the same.
"There's no fool that's a stranger to a good thrashing. You'd do well to remember it."
Shira understood that her captor was a kitsune-tsukai, a fox
witch, but she didn't know what to do about it. The witch knew many of
her thoughts, but she didn't think she read her mind. Somehow she
anticipated things, deduced others and compiling the two gave her an
insight into Shirasawa's intentions. She marveled at the uncanny
ability. The old hag practically knew what she was going to do before
Shira herself even thought of doing it. Miyabe's words haunted her,
"You will never catch a rabbit, if you can't sense its course."
A fox is no rabbit, Shirasawa told herself, and even if it was, how will I sense its course, know where it's going? Her chains clinked as she walked. I can't even escape these iron bracelets.
Her mind drifted again and she found herself remembering the maple grove where Miyabe caught a rabbit for her to pet.
"I just want to hold one," she'd told him, "And ruffle its fluffy ears."
Miyabe spied one of the tiny animals in the nearby brush, flashed
away, returning with the small creature for her to hold. In her mind,
Shirasawa could feel its soft fur again. She also recalled its
trembling frame, how afraid it was, how it buried its nose in the
smooth cloth of her kimono. She remembered that and the warm feeling of
Miyabe standing behind her, holding her in his strong embrace. We are maple tree spirits, she reminded herself. We spent the night next to each other, sleeping inside the trunks of the trees that held our true forms.
Tears filled her eyes as she felt again the gentle rustling of her
bright red leaves. She loved the way he pressed them between his
fingertips before slipping inside the bough next to hers. She missed
the way he spread his limbs over hers, using his dark canopy to shield
We are maple spirits, her memory flashed again. We are lords of the forest. Her face flushed red with the realization. Majestic
and royal. We change forms with our tree hosts and walk as humans
whenever the mood takes us! We sleep inside the trees because it gives
"What's it doing?" the crone asked. "Is the little bird going to try and fly away?"
Becoming spirit form, Shirasawa slipped from her bonds, the bracelets falling from her wrists, passing through her wrists.
"A clever trick," the witch cried. "But I'll teach the stupid finch a thing or two about tricks!"
The crone reached out to strike with her quarterstaff, but Shirasawa
passed right through the arc of the she-devil's swing, her ghostly
tendrils dissolving and reforming on the other side. The witch spun the
wood in her wrinkled palms and brought it down again, but Shirasawa was
already shifting form. She realized the witch would try this parry and
stepped into the thrusting motion that followed, slipping her fingers
inside the cloak and plucking the small paring knife from the inside
In her phantom shape, Shirasawa also realized that she could see the
form of the witch's fox across the clearing. It snarled at her, pulling
its lips back and shining its needle sharp teeth. It panted and yipped,
moving in a tense circle that warned Shirasawa not to come any closer.
But Shirasawa again became a wisp of shadow, and this time, she sensed
the animal's course, knew where it would be before it could arrive.
She'd stolen the paring knife from one of the folds in Gokayama's
shroud and when she re-appeared behind the fox, she placed the blade
along its thin neck.
"You idiotic sparrow!" the crone shrieked, "You'll kill us both."
Shirasawa looked down and saw the angry posture of the wild fox,
felt its rough fur standing on end, heard it hissing beneath her touch;
and then she understood the darkness of rage that Gokayama described.
She felt it grow in her chest, like ripples on a pond after a cast
stone shatters the mirror image of the sky. Each circle spread and
resonated with a greater sense of justified anger. Each concentric ring
produced a further notion of power and strength.
"You wouldn't hurt a flower," the hag continued. "You can't even begin to think what it's like to take another life."
Shirasawa realized that what the woman said would have applied to
the young girl wandering through the forest before dawn, but something
else the crone said rang true to her in the moment she was free of her
shackles. She felt the darkness inside her own soul, and whether it was
a friendly thing or not, it was undeniably a part of her. Knealing over
the fox, with a blade in her hand, Shirasawa also understood that she
needed a measure of darkness inside her to do the things she would have
to do find Miyabe and bring his spirit home. In the end, the soothsayer
was right, the rage did not seem so horrible to Shira after all.
"Maybe that was true this morning," she answered, "But you've shown me a few things since then."
"Hai," the witch responded, "And I'll show you a few more before the day ends."
No, I'll show you something this time, Shirasawa grinned to
herself. Her resolve completed its outward expansion and she knew what
came next. Her fingers tingled with a desire to kill and her heart
fluttered inside, quaking with violent emotion.
The sorceress coughed her guttural sputter and puffed out her chest.
"Go on then. Do it, little wren."
"I'm no bird!" Shirasawa answered. "My name is Shirasawa, and I am a
noble tree spirit from the maple grove beside the Takano river!
Daughter of Oda Nobukatsu and betrothed to Miyabe, leader of the Red
Shira felt the fox's slender neck bob and jerk. She squeezed its
orange throat like some fuzzy stem of carrot. It bucked against her
grip once before she screamed Miyabe's name and plunged the blade into
the animal's taut vein. Both witch and beast fell dead on the
leaf-strewn ground. Shirasawa was free.
She sat in the grove for over an hour, not crying, but not ready to
resume her journey either. A rabbit played in the brush on the far side
of the clearing. She stared at its furry tail bouncing back and forth
among blades of grass and strands of wild flowers. The little thing
turned and started to move up the hill to the north and west. Shira
smiled because she knew it would do that.
© 2013 Jay Hill
Bio: This story is a sequel to Shirasawa's Promise,
which appeared in the December 2012 issue. Previously, Jay Hill was a
contributor to the online music site, tinymixtapes.com, where he had
regular music reviews published, as well as the occasional non-fiction
piece. Over the last year, he has had a number of short stories
and the occasional poem published in online science fiction journals
such as 365 Tomorrows and Aphelion. He recently resumed
work on his graduate degree at Texas A&M University - Commerce and
is also working on a biography of John Coltrane, as well as editing his
first fantasy novel.
E-mail: Jay Hill
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