This year, my story for National Novel Writing Month is a historical fiction set in Heian-era Japan. My main character is a young lady who lives in a high-up mountain village on the island of Shikoku. It has been an interesting couple of weeks already, researching various yokai, looking up various specifics of Heian life, and building a balanced character. I have also been sprinkling in Japanese onomatopeia and terms, and some Japanese-style poetry. Happy reading. If you are a fellow NaNo writer, happy writing!
Prologue- In Which the Blood of the Sacred is Shed
Most of the year, the mountain was awash in the green. To be sure, it sparkled with a blanket of white during the wintertime, but there was always green to be found underneath the wisps of ivory. This summer, however, the lush greens were stained with red. Somewhere beneath the pines and camphors that guarded the ancient stones of Mount Tairyuji, blood stained the ground. It was blood that never should have been shed, but it flowed all the same, free and hot and chaotic.
The creature whose blood was spilled was one who should never have been harmed. She should have been sacred– or at least respected– in the minds of all mortal beings. Alas, he had not a single care for her sanctity. He was brash, he was barbaric, and he cared nothing for the sanctity for anything on that mountain. He had only one goal in mind, and he would spill whatever blood he needed to in order to reach it.
The kitsune’s blood splattered across the boulders, and fell like raindrops on the leaves of low branches. Her kimono fell open, the essence of her life staining the delicate embroidery of the layers of fabric, and he body descended to the ground. The magic that had made her appear as human began to fade, and even the rust-color fur that returned was drenched in blood. She stared up at the man as he watched her die, his breathing loud and ragged as he glared at her in hatred.
Through the veil of her receding life, all that she could think was that the sun, looming behind him through an opening in the branches, seemed to shine so black. As human as he seemed– far more than she was, the very least, there was something about him that was so other-worldly.
She let out a faint gasp, trying desperately to hang onto something. But there was nothing to hang onto, and even then, who could possibly come to help her in what little time she had left?
He left the kitsune there on the ground, soaking in a puddle of her own life-force, revealed for all the wildlife of the forest to see. She was bare, exposed, her secrets all for naught. What good had it been for her to take human form? Had earning her seventh tail ever done her any good? The worst of it was, she would never accomplish the goal she’d had in mind when she’d begun her climb up that mountain.
Night rises with the moon,
darkness wraps around us,
tiny sounds creep
through the dark and quiet woods,
where the yokai dare to roam.
Chapter One- In Which the Village is Thrust into Danger
The kudan had been born late that spring. It was such a small calf that the farmer had hardly known that his cow was expecting, but its scrawny legs were covered in a thick layer of hazel fur. As soon as it had been born, the farmer had laid it on a bed of fresh, soft hay, and rushed out of the barn, all the way to the village temple. He stopped only to bow to the Buddha statue and add a pinch of incense to the censer, and hurried up to the priest. Within minutes, they were back at the farmer’s barn, inspecting the kudan.
The rest of the village eventually found out that a kudan had been born. Its actual message was kept between the farmer and the priest, but what they knew was that it brought a sense of foreboding. A kudan was supposed to be a good omen, so the villagers counted their blessings that they had forewarning that something was coming.
Nobody– not even the village priest– knew what that something was supposed to be. He kept a closer eye on his family, and chanted all the more for them at his temple. His brow sweated, sometimes, with the idea that his village might be in danger. A son had been born to him that spring, and he did not want to see his wife mourning for a child so new, should anything come to pass.
The Shyouhana family was widely respect by the rest of the village. The priest, Mokuran, stood as the head of the family, and his eldest son, Hitomu, was heir to the rites of the temple lineage. Mokuran and Natsuko also had two daughters and a small son who was not even old enough to take up the calligraphy brush.
Baby Natsuo was a blessing to the family, and the only bad that had befallen them since his birth was the kudan’s warning. That is to say, the kudan was the first to bring any bad news.
Shyouhana Sachiko, the young lady from Odashizen Mura who could see and speak to yokai, was close to her big brother, and seemed to have a talent for communing with the Shinto spirits, whereas her brother studied sutra after sutra for days on end. She was not afraid of the small yokai that wandered the forests surrounding her mountain village. In fact, in all of Odashizen Mura, she was the one who was summoned first when anyone suspected that a yokai had overstepped its bounds.
Some days, Sachiko would help her mother and other villagers pound rice into mochi. Then she would take a small bowl to the end of the village, where a pair of statues stood guard. There was a small yokai there, an unassuming yama yokai who wanted only something to eat. She shared her small bowl with that yamabiko out of the goodness of her heart.
Sometimes, one of the villagers would find a basket of fruit near the statues. Other times, they would find a collection of pine cones, or a jar filled with seeds. Whatever was left behind, it was as random as it was useful, and the villagers were grateful for it. They attributed the gifts to the yamabiko, even though nobody could prove that it was the yokai bringing the gifts, and Sachiko was the only one to ever see him.
All was well in Odashizen Mura for a long time after the kudan’s short life had ended. The villagers were beginning to think that its foreboding had been wrong. Was there really going to be anything bad happening to the village?
Almost as soon as their tension had begun to fade, word came in from the rice paddies that something was amiss. The crop was being damaged, rice stalks trampled, the delicate grains mangled. Many of the stalks were missing their heads altogether, and the farmhands feared for the fate of their crop.
A village meeting was called to order.
“I fear that this is the work of the gaki,” Mokuran announced as the crowd quieted down. He turned to his daughter, and the village also turned their attention to her.
“I have visited the fields,” she confirmed with a nod. “There are hungry ghosts out there, set on devouring anything that we can.”
“But they will ruin us!” one of the villagers cried.
Shyouhana Sachiko shook her head. “I have calmed them as best I can,” she reassured them. “And meanwhile, my brother is out there, chanting to calm them down.”
“How many of them are there?” another woman called out.
“Many more than usual,” Sachiko admitted. “We are not yet sure why they have come here in such great numbers.”
“And what if more come?” the villagers wanted to know.
“As our spiritual leader,” the potter added, “it’s your job to keep us safe, Mokuran.”
“And as your spiritual leader,” the priest replied, “I intend to all that I can to keep these yokai from causing any more harm.”
“Is this the danger that the kudan warned about?” the weaver asked.
“If only I could assure you that he has come to tell us of something so simple,” Mokuran sighed. “I am loathe to admit it, but we should be on our guard, lest the kudan had come to warn of so much more than gaki.”
“Then what will we do to replace the rice that has been damaged?” the miller demanded to know.
“It is a small portion of the crop,” Sachiko assured him.
“It is a loss,” Mokuran added for her, “that is considerable enough to mention, but not so great that it would surely ruin us. Once these hungry ghosts are under control, we can determine whether a ration will be enough to get us through to he next growing season, or if we need to buy more from another village.”
“Then we’d have to trade some our goods away for rice that should never have been lost,” the miller complained.
“Nobody expected it to be hungry ghosts,” Mokuran replied. “What were we to do about this? We had all the protections in place that we could have had.”
“What are you going to do in order to find out why so many hungry ghosts are coming all this way up the mountain?” another villager asked.
Mokuran mulled the question over for several long moments, and finally replied, “I myself cannot make the journey.”
“What about Hitomu?” one of the farmers asked.
Mokuran shook his head. “I need him here, reading the sutras to the hungry ghosts. No… I am afraid that I must call upon my dear Sachiko to set out and seek the information that we need.”
At the mention of her name, Sachiko gasped. Never had she expected that she might be asked to leave the village. Never had she considered that she would be charged with such an important undertaking. Questions flooded her mind, things that she needed to know, practicalities, and– dare she admit it– protestations. Those she would save for her father alone when they returned home.
It did not take too much longer for the villagers to be assured that the priest had his best intentions in mind for the village. There was still a definite tension in the air, but they were at least satisfied that Mokuran was taking action.
Rice sprouts so tiny,
Pressed into the soaking mud,
tender crops for food.