Peace be upon you this morning, my brother. I see you and I alone are brave enough to clap our eyes upon this thing, this menace of the Eastern Sea. Or fools enough, as our shipmates would say. I? Oh, yes, I’ve seen it before. Gone so far as to make landfall and stand beneath it, but that was with a captain and crew of the One True Faith. Islanders like our ship’s master and his men are still beholden to those superstitions that pass for religion in these waters. But I trust that one day the revelations of the Prophet, peace be upon him, will open their eyes. Oh, I’ll grant you that, my brother – they are as strong in their own beliefs as you or I are in the One True Faith. But do not confuse belief with faith. Faith is the measure of the civilized mind and it begets wisdom, while belief… belief springs from emotion, not intellect. It begets fanaticism, and fanaticism begets what we shall soon see perched upon one of these little islands. Its name? It has none. The islanders fear naming it will give it power over them. They only speak of the settlement whose people created this monstrosity, a lyrical trilling which in our language amounts to “the village that devoured itself.” But during its time of glory it used to be known, in lands even more distant than our own, as Blossom of the Hillside…. * * * Blossom of the Hillside owed its existence to porcelain. Delicate teacups and elegant figurines flowed from the shops of its artisans to the ships of the Imperial trading fleet and thence to the kingdoms of the Western barbarians. In return the Blossom People were held in high honor by the Emperor and his subjects, and they grew in wealth and reputation. Porcelain had caused Blossom of the Hillside to grow from a few isolated clay digs and anagama sites to a thriving village with dozens of master potters and sculptors and their families, along with scores of apprentices, lackeys, and servants. Their delicate houses, with paper walls and pagoda roofs, peppered the foot of the island’s one great hill. Bright tiles adorned every roof, post, and beam – the artisans’ castoffs, yet finer still than any barbarian claymonger could fashion. East of the village the hill rose tall and broad to overlook the vast sea, its stony bulk protecting the village from storms blown in by ocean winds. The Blossom People knew their ties to porcelain were profound. For as the priests had told them over the centuries, the God of the Kiln had sculpted the Blossom People from the same kaolin clay they used to craft their wares. It was there for anyone to see, how they were more fair of skin than any others among the Emperor’s subjects, and far more beautiful. The God of the Kiln had shown the first Blossom People where to dig for the kaolin and what elements to mix into it for strength and beauty. How to shape the clay and decorate it. How to build the anagama and fire their wares, sometimes for days, until the raw kaolin turned into a ceramic of near-magical properties. For all these things, the Blossom People were grateful to the God of the Kiln. Over the centuries they had made obeisance and sacrificed good things – succulent duck meat, powerful incense, prayers written in rare inks on imported paper. And always, the God of the Kiln had watched over them and allowed the Blossom People to prosper. Their very prosperity made them humble. Yet in its own way it was such humility that, ultimately, brought them to ruin. * * * Do you not know what the anagama is? Ah, a thousand pardons! It is a kiln, in simplest terms. But such a kiln has never been seen in our lands. They are not crude things, though – rather they are cunning feats of engineering, worthy of imitation. This is an anagama: Think of a tunnel, running up a hillside, open at both ends. The potter fills it with his wares ready for firing. At the top end of the tunnel, he builds a chimney of bricks; within its lower end, he lays a fire. No middling blaze, either, but a proper bonfire that, once lit, is kept burning for days on end. If it were to fail – or even reduce to a bed of coals otherwise sufficient to roast a whole stag – the air within would not stay hot enough to harden the clay. So for the entire firing, the potter – more likely his students or minions – must feed wood into the greedy mouth of the anagama, until the master determines the proper time has passed and the fire is allowed to die. Yes, it is elegant, is it not? And you have seen the results – hardy vessels that yet look so delicate you fear to touch them, lest they shatter. Porcelain! My family’s fortune was made many times over with its trade! As yours will be soon. Just such a kiln was built by the people of Blossom of the Hillside to fire the terrible figure we are bound toward – an anagama greater than any in all of history. * * * In the summer of that particular year, there came a day when a great shaking of the earth threw down some of the houses in Blossom of the Hillside, and collapsed some of the anagama. The Blossom People, knowing that such events were often followed by the terrible tsunami, fled to the crest of the great hill and waited to see if they would have to rebuild their village once again, as they had in centuries past. They watched through the night as was their custom, but no waves came. In the morning, as they began the long walk back to the village, a grandmother called for her daughter’s tardy child. When the young boy finally appeared, she found his feet covered in soft, white kaolin. “Wretched child! I should beat you!” the grandmother exclaimed. “We climb the hill for safety from the tsunami, and you go back down to play in the clay pits?” “Honored grandmother, it is not so!” the panicked boy said, scampering out of her reach. “I have not left the top of the hill all this night!” Now, the grandmother was one of the eldest artisans in Blossom of the Hillside, and she knew that all the kaolin on the island was dug from pits around the base of the hill. She told her grandson so, and raised her hand again to beat him. “Honored grandmother, it is no lie!” the boy wailed. “For I have been playing in a great crevice, newly opened in the rocks upon the hill’s crest, and I will show it to you!” Staying her hand, the grandmother followed the boy to those rocks, which had stood unchanged for a millennium. And there, indeed, she beheld a gaping cleft where none had been before. Deep within the crevice she could see a vein of pure, white kaolin. “Give me your foot!” she demanded of the boy. When he nervously obliged, she scraped a bit of the clay from his ankle. Felt it between her fingers. Sniffed it with her nose. Ground it between her teeth. Then she swept the boy up in her arms and squeezed him mightily. “Truly you are destined for greatness!” the grandmother cried. “For the God of the Kiln has opened the great hill and led you the finest clay we have seen in many generations!” With the bewildered Sheng (for this was the boy’s name) still squirming in her arms, the grandmother hurried back to where the last of the Blossom People were departing for the village, to deliver the news of the great blessing. It was, indeed, very good clay, all the masters agreed. From it could be fired teacups whose walls were so thin as to be translucent, yet were harder to chip or crack than bamboo. Furthermore, when drawn from their anagama this porcelain was whiter than clouds and smoother than still water. The God of the Kiln had given the Blossom People a gift the worth of which was beyond measure. Their works – already valued within the Empire and the barbarian lands – became sought after like treasures. Deep into the hilltop the villagers dug, and as the years passed it became clear that this was no mere pit or vein. The miners reported that beneath a thick crown of earth and rock, the deposit filled the heart of the great hill. The Blossom People rejoiced in this, yet were humbled at how profoundly the God of the Kiln had blessed them. For thirty years the Blossom People excavated the kaolin from the great hill, until they had dug a cavern broader and taller than the largest building on the island. By then their renown surpassed that of every other village in the Empire. Their works had flooded the Imperial coffers with revenue from tariffs, and their own pockets had been lined with silver through the Emperor’s generous patronage. * * * Oho, my friend, you show the instincts of a scholar! You are right, of course, about the boy. His part was not done with the finding of the clay. I could not know that, of course, unless he had achieved sufficient worthiness to be mentioned in some report of this village and its fate. Well, there is ample word of this Sheng in Imperial accounts I have read; the tongxinyuan, they called him: The messenger. Blessed by the God of the Kiln, it was held, and so his life was spent in service to that deity. Trained up in their infidel religion and, once he achieved his manhood, made shenzhi, the priest of the island’s temple. Yet with all the honor he was accorded for this supposed blessing, he was a man overtaken by humility. It was he, more than any other, who exhorted the Blossom People to likewase honor the God of the Kiln. Perhaps it was because he had no other skill. I have found some mention of his childhood and it seems he had no touch for shaping the clay and could not take up the family craft. What safer place for a dullard than the priesthood, eh? No, “dullard” is too harsh. Simple and honest this Sheng was. Humble to a fault – indeed, to the greatest fault imaginable. * * * On the thirtieth anniversary of his discovery upon the hilltop, the shenzhi Sheng bade the Blossom People to still their hands and gather at the village shrine. It was time, he instructed them, to acknowledge the blessing of years past by crafting a great image of the God of the Kiln from the very clay he had given them. The Blossom People heard this and nodded solemnly to one another. It was a wise and prudent thing to do. Yet as they debated where such a statue should be built, Sheng spoke again. “My people! This, too, have I considered, and the answer is plain to me: We must build it within the very cavern our digging has created inside the great hill.” Voices rose in confusion and consternation until the shenzhi called for their attention once more. “The image of the God of the Kiln will not remain hidden within!” he shouted. “First we will build the statue within the cavern, from the kaolin that remains there. Then we shall dig a wide tunnel through the hillside to the village – we will make of this cavern the greatest anagama ever seen! Then, when the long firing is done and the porcelain is hard and pure, we will dig away the hillside where it faces the sea. Then the trade ships and fishermen’s fleets will be able to see the God of the Kiln and know how highly we honor him!” One and all, the Blossom People proclaimed the genius of this vision. They carried Sheng on their shoulders around the village and honored him with a great feast that night. The next day, all the artisans of the village set aside the work of their trades and began the great project. Some measured the breadth and depth of the cavern. Some dug the tunnel from the heart of the hill to the village. Some erected a great chimney of bricks upon the cleft at the hill’s crest. But of greatest import was the design of the great idol, and this task Sheng himself oversaw. “Tall, it must be – tall enough for sailors on passing ships to see clearly,” he commanded. “His visage must be happy and content, so all will know how pleased he is with the Blossom People. The proportions must be pleasing, too, and his attire and pose must hew to the traditions of the past. Most importantly it must be a work of consummate artistry, so that from whatever distance and from whichever angle he is viewed, there will be another wonder to behold.” Finally the day came when Sheng looked at the plans and nodded. “Now, to work!” First, the miners of the clay pits descended into the great hill, piling the kaolin into a mound ten times the height of a man. Following them, the sculptors descended into the cavern to cut and press and shape the clay into the image of the God of the Kiln. At the far end of the island, the woodcutters set their axes to swinging, cutting down many trees and splitting them into firewood that was set aside to season so it would burn its hottest when the time came to fire the great statue. For a year the Blossom People labored, as Sheng urged them on with praise for their efforts and their devotion to the God of the Kiln. Finally, the last detail of the statue had been shaped, the last billet of wood had been stacked, and the Blossom People held another great feast to celebrate their undertaking. The next day, in the mouth of the great tunnel where it opened at their village, they built a roaring blaze. The firing of the statue of the God of the Kiln had begun. Now, the artisans who knew best the secrets of kaolin clay and porcelain wares had argued long and fiercely about the firing, for once it began it could not be allowed to stop until the clay in the statue was thoroughly hardened. In truth, nothing like this had ever been attempted in the history of Blossom of the Hillside or any other village. So after many long days and nights of arguments, recriminations, and speculations, they agreed that the fire must be fed for an entire year, day and night. Hearing this news, the woodcutters had blanched. “Shenzhi Sheng,” they cried. “this cannot be so! For we have felled one out of every three trees on the island, and even if we burn every last branch and leaf that will not last more than a quarter of the year!” Sheng frowned. “Then you must cut the rest of the trees down, and hope it will suffice,” he said, “for in this our duty to the God of the Kiln we must not fail.” Bowing to his wisdom, the woodcutters went back to work. As the months passed by, they cleared the island of its every tree. By the year’s midpoint, the stacks of firewood filled every open space in and around Blossom of the Hillside, and everyone looked around with satisfaction and said, “Good, it will be enough.” But as the summer passed into autumn, those stacks began to dwindle. Furthermore, the cold came early, and people begged to use some of the wood to heat their homes. “No!” declared Sheng, “for we need all of this wood to fire the anagama, and in this our duty to the God of the Kiln we must not fail!” The Blossom people grumbled, but nodded at this wisdom, and drew their robes a little tighter around their shoulders. Then came the autumn equinox, and the master of the kiln came to the shenzhi Sheng and told him, “Wisest of the Blossom People, there is enough firewood to feed the anagama for only another day, yet we need fuel for ninety times that long!” And Sheng, seeing the great work of the Blossom People could come to naught, called together the villagers. “My people!” he said. “For nine months we have tended the anagama and fired the statue, but the wood will run out tomorrow! Yet in this our duty to the God of the Kiln we must not fail! Therefore, you must gather up all the furniture in your houses and workshops, your boats, your tools, anything made of wood. Pile it by the mouth of the kiln where the woodcutters will break it up for the fire. Then bring all else that will burn – your bedding, the hangings on your walls, the very clothes except those you wear on your backs – and pile it here. For your sacrifice, the glory will be all the greater when the statue is revealed!” The Blossom People grumbled loudly but recognized the wisdom of the priest’s words. So they dragged their chairs and tables and beds and tools to the mouth of the kiln. And they scoured their homes and workshops for all other things that would burn and piled them by the anagama, where all was gradually fed into the fire. But it was not enough. At the end of the eleventh month, the master of the kiln came to the shenzhi Sheng and cried, “O wisest of the Blossom People, all the boats and tools and blankets and clothes have been burned, but still it is not enough! Without more fuel, the fire will die with the sunrise!” The priest pondered these words, and once more gathered the villagers by the shrine. “My people!” he said. “We have come to the most crucial stage, but the fire will die on the morrow without more fuel! We must tear down our very houses and workshops and pile the beams and boards by the mouth of the anagama, so our great work can be completed!” Now a great wailing arose from the people. “But tongxinyuan, where will we live? For winter is upon us, and very soon the fierce storms will sweep in off the sea!” “I know you have sacrificed much,” replied the priest, “but I also know you have yet more to give! We can live in the old clay pits, where we have dug into the hillside along the creek beds. There is shelter enough there to keep us until spring. And when the statue is completed, so great will be our glory and honor that no one who passes it will fail to know the worth of the Blossom People!” These words heartened the villagers, and they set to tearing apart their homes and workshops with the only tools yet left to them, the woodcutters’ axes. Every day for thirty days buildings were dismantled and fed into the kiln, until no sign of the village was left standing. And yet, at sunset of the thirtieth day, the kiln master came miserably to the shenzhi Sheng and threw himself on the dirt before his feet. “O wisest of the Blossom People!” he whimpered. “We have failed! For we have burned every tree upon the island, and all our belongings, and each and every building that once stood in Blossom of the Hillside. Yet there is one more day in the firing of the kiln and there is no fuel left anywhere. The fire will die with the sunrise, and we will fail!” This grim news struck the priest to his core, and he called the villagers to him at the mouth of the kiln. “My people!” he cried out. “The hour of our greatest crisis is at hand! For we are a day short of one year’s firing of the anagama and perfection of the statue to the God of the Kiln. You have given up the trees of the island, your boats, your tools, your belongings, your very homes – and yet, without some other fuel for the kiln, we will have failed by morning!” Dismayed voices cried out from the crowd. “But what can we do? We have given everything but our bodies to the kiln!” “Then it is our bodies that must be given now!” Sheng called back. “For in this sacrifice will all peoples know of the great humility of the Blossom People, who gave everything to the God of the Kiln and whose sacrifice will be held in high honor for all time!” For a few moments only a stunned silence met the priest’s words. Finally an old man, oldest among all the Blossom People, spoke out: “This statue has consumed my tools, my home, my very craft – let it consume me, as well.” And as the Blossom People stared in wonder, the ancient artisan trod heavily into the mouth of the anagama, disappearing into the white-hot light of the flames. Now the priest spoke again. “See the wisdom of the eldest among us! Can any of us do less for the God of the Kiln?” A quiet shiver ran through the gathered villagers. Then, one by one, they bowed their heads in consent. To give themselves bodily to the God of the Kiln was truly all they had left. All through the night and into the next day, every time the kiln master declared the fire was waning, Blossom People vanished into the anagama. Singly. As couples. Parents clutching children to their breasts. Every last grandmother and grandchild. Sheng blessed them all as they shambled into the anagama, beaming with pride as each person disappeared into its fiery maw. Finally, with the sun bearing down upon the horizon on the final day of firing, the kiln master looked to the shenzhi and said, “Almost we are done. I will go next, and you must follow before the sun has fully set.” Sheng bowed to the kiln master, and watched him vanish into the anagama. Then he turned to face the west, peace filling his heart as he prepared to perform his final service to the God of the Kiln. It was then the earth began to shake. Jolted from his meditation, Sheng looked to the anagama only to see the tunnel collapse. Crying out, he cast his eyes towards the crest of the great hill, in time to see the chimney that vented the smoke tumble into a pile of rubble. Fighting for balance on the unsteady ground, Sheng forced his way up the great hill, hoping that some small crevice would open, some place he could slip through to give himself to the God of the Kiln, as well. As he mounted the hill, the shaking grew greater. Soon he could see cracks opening on the steep seaward face, venting inky smoke and clouds of ash. Soon the hillside itself began to bulge. Clinging to a stony prominence, Sheng cried out the name of the God of the Kiln, begging forgiveness for failing in this most sacred task. With a thunderous roar that nearly shook Sheng loose from his perch, the hillside erupted, sending earth and stones flying into the surf far below. The shaking finally grew still. Smoke cascaded from the cavernous space left behind, choking and blinding Sheng until it was borne away by the sea winds and he saw.... The statue was black. Surely, Sheng thought, surely it is ash on the statue, or a trick of light and smoke – the God of the Kiln must be shining white porcelain! With scalded eyes, Sheng began to make out the massive form of the God of the Kiln…. Wrong! It was all wrong! Where was the look of gentle benediction, the wisdom, the satisfaction of a god pleased with his people? No. The visage Sheng beheld was terrible. The brows bore down heavily on eyes like those of a venomous serpent. The nose was squashed and flared, with smoke trickling from the nostrils as though some fire still raged deep within. The mouth gaped, slavering, a forked tongue lolling from between uneven fangs. The body, too, was grotesque, malformed like a child born from a poisoned womb. Its skin appeared in turns scaly and warty. From hunched shoulders sprang sinewy arms ending less in hands than the talons of some bird of prey. The torso rested upon mismatched legs, each twisted unnaturally as though wrenched out of place, and terminating in split and misshapen feet. But worst for Sheng to behold were the bodies scattered upon the stone shelf about the idol’s feet. The bodies of the Blossom People, themselves contorted into the most horrible positions. Even from his high vantage point, Sheng saw those bodies had never burned upon entering the anagama. His people made their way past the inferno and through the choking smoke, only have their souls ripped from them at the feet of their god. Of his god, Sheng realized. His god, who had spared him from the kiln so the shenzhi could see what his humble pride had wrought. Sheng stood then, and stepped into the air. Denied communion with the God of the Kiln, the last of the Blossom People cast himself into the sea below, where the surf eagerly took him in to pound him upon the rocks lining the shore. * * * You are very quiet, my friend. Yes, even from here you can see the bodies – calcified into stone, yet that does not make them any less… disturbing. And that idol – it may only be an infidel’s folly, but I grant you, even we of the One True Faith must shudder at its sight. We should do well to let it remind us that humility, even, can be taken too far. Yet it serves its purposes. No captain of an islander ship will ply these waters of his own accord, but ours is well-paid to risk skirting this cursed shore. There is a fine anchorage just around the point, and between us we have brought enough sons and nephews to man both longboats. By dawn our hold will be stocked with the best clay ever to have been dug from the earth. And then it is back to civilized lands. I met a most intriguing artisan when last I was summoned to the Caliph’s court. He and his students were working miracles with our rude clays. I long to see what he might do with porcelain that was the gift of a god!
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Day 23 Campfire by Michael Dylan Welch
campfire circle-- midway through the ghost story his extra-long inhale
*** Like a ghost, this poem has disappeared into thin air. ***
Shrouded in Mist by Lois Henderson
Spectral limbs of trees Loom through the mist -- ghostly shapes Tendrils emanate
Written in the Tongue of the Uroboros by Dave Mercel
Prolonged terror breeds infinite madness. Then come the whitecoats, the slathering hounds, the whispering demons. They found the madman painted in blood and viscera reading by firelight. It was a story, handwritten, yet by whom? He did not relinquish these pages easily. “Madoc gibbered 'Do not dwell upon words abandoned on the skittering edge of sleep. Mistigris cacoethes, danse paralexia, ricochet and rot, the mind is a monster.'” The attending doctor read the tale. He later tortured and murdered his family, then disappeared. He took the story with him. Lost until now, it begins “Prolonged terror breeds infinite madness...”
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Day 24 Mt. Hiei by Kathryn Hemmann
Kaoru kept his head bowed and his eyes lowered, doing his best to look respectful as he followed his guide, one of the senior monks of Enryaku Temple. Kaoru was being taken to meet the abbot, whose reception room was located deep within the interconnecting passages that formed the temple complex. As he scurried along, Kaoru glanced into the dark rooms lying in wait behind partially open sliding doors. He caught glimpses of elaborate wall paintings and shaded altars before his impatient guide hurried him along. Kaoru was to be made a junior monk of Enryaku Temple. The abbot would grant Kaoru a formal interview before assigning his duties and living quarters. Kaoru was embarrassed to appear before the abbot in his overstarched monk’s robe. The fabric was an unpleasant shade of gray unbroken by even the slightest flourish of ornamentation, and it was rough and scratchy against his skin. Kaoru raised his hand and ran his palm across his newly-shaven head. He wasn’t happy to be here. His father was the provincial governor of Uji, a rural town where many of the higher-ranking nobles in the capital maintained their holiday villas. During the summer of the fourth year of the reign of Emperor Jishō, a skirmish between two clans vying for imperial succession had broken out on the outskirts of Uji. The conflict escalated into a battle, and the house and storehouses of Kaoru’s family burned to the ground. No one had been hurt in the fire, but the loss of property plunged the family into poverty. Kaoru’s mother had passed away soon after he was born, so his father married a young widow in the capital, the daughter of a high-ranking palace official. Kaoru’s sister, three years his senior, was invited to serve as a lady-in-waiting at court, while Kaoru was sent to Mount Hiei. He was ten years old. His meeting with the abbot went smoothly. The old monk passed a cursory glance over Kaoru before stamping his seal above his shaky signature. He clapped twice, and an older boy in a dark gray robe entered the room, dropped to his knees, and pressed his forehead against the wooden floorboards. “This young man will show you around for the next few weeks,” the abbot said in a distracted tone of voice as he gazed out into the garden. “You may call him ‘Kashiwagi,’ and you will do as he says. Comport yourself with dignity, and always remember your duty to protect the nation. You are both dismissed.” The monk who’d ushered Kaoru inside set about tidying up the brushes and ink on the abbot’s desk as the younger monk backed out of the room on his knees. Kaoru did his best to emulate the boy’s movements. After sliding the door closed, Kashiwagi stood and motioned for Kaoru to follow him. The older boy’s footsteps made hardly any sound at all. Kaoru frowned, wondering why the boy hadn’t been trained to walk properly. Didn’t he know it was rude not to announce his presence by shuffling his feet? After continuing in silence for several minutes, Kashiwagi turned to Kaoru and smiled. “I almost forgot,” he said, pulling a thin paper rectangle out of the loose sleeve of his robe. “You’ll join the worship service this evening, so you’ll need this.” He thrust the rectangle at Kaoru. “This is your prayer book. Come on, take it.” Kaoru was amazed. This flimsy thing was a book? Grasping a cover in each hand, Kaoru opened the book, only to step back in surprise as the pages accordioned to the ground. “No, like this.” Kashiwagi laughed as he showed Kaoru how to manipulate the folds of the book’s pages. Kaoru gawked at the dense characters that marched down each sheet of paper. His father had hired a tutor to teach him Chinese poetry, and he’d grown quite adept at reading calligraphy, but the profusion of blocky characters in the prayer book was intimidating. If Kashiwagi noticed Kaoru’s dismay, he chose not to acknowledge it. “The service starts early today,” he said, nudging his new charge along. “We’re going to be late if we don’t hurry.” The ceremony was awful. For almost two hours, Kaoru was forced to sit cross-legged on a hard wooden floor covered by nothing more than a single layer of reed mats. The late spring evening should have been pleasantly chilly, but the heat of the monks crowded into Enryaku Temple’s main worship hall was oppressive. Everyone faced the raised dais of the central altar, which supported an enormous statue of a deity Kaoru couldn’t identify. The wooden sculpture was haloed with chains of golden ornaments and surrounded by a sea of fresh flowers and smoky incense. The worship hall had been built into the rocky slope of the mountain, and the room had no windows. The entire altar was shrouded in shadow. Even though the deity’s head was as large as his own body, Kaoru couldn’t make out the expression carved on its face. The cavernous hall echoed with the monks’ chanting, a steady stream of monotone syllables in a language that sounded vaguely Chinese. Kaoru’s creeping boredom was mixed with a sense of unease that persisted through the service. The chanting and ritual movements contained none of the elegance or grace he’d come to expect from prayers performed in the capital, and the faces of the monks were entirely too serious. Kaoru couldn’t put his finger on it, but something about the ceremony felt strange, almost sinister. When the service was over, the younger monks headed to the dining hall while a few of the older monks, whose robes were the glossy black of crow feathers, stayed behind to continue their prayers. Kaoru’s first meal at Enryaku Temple passed in complete silence, just as all his subsequent meals would. A plain bowl of rice and a plate of unseasoned tofu were set down in front of him. Kaoru waited politely for the rest of the meal to arrive, but it never materialized. He was used to lively banquets at his father’s manor, and the restrained and meager dinner left him unsatisfied. He was dismayed to find that everyone was expected to go to bed after eating. Kashiwagi led Kaoru to a large but stuffy room where they and two dozen other junior monks were expected to pass the night in unbroken silence. Before his family’s house burned down, Kaoru had spent his nights with his sister and her ladies, who would light candles nestled within seashells and small ceramic censers holding sachets of sweet-smelling incense. They would amuse themselves by exchanging verses and telling stories until they fell asleep. Kaoru struggled not to cry as he forced himself to lay motionless in the dusty futon that the temple had assigned to him. The other monks in the room wheezed and snored, and the room stank of their sweat. Shortly after Kaoru managed to doze off, he was awakened by the bell for morning service. The pale moon was still bright on the edge of the early morning sky. #
Life at Enryaku Temple was dull and uncomfortable. Kaoru learned how to surreptitiously massage his aching legs during the unending worship services, how to eat as much rice as he could during the brief time allotted for meals, and how not to scratch at the rashes that spread across his skin during the long intervals between baths. Every day was exactly the same as the last, although occasionally the chores and the length of the services varied. Kaoru would never have been able to endure the monotony had it not been for Kashiwagi, who had taken an immediate liking to him. Kashiwagi taught Kaoru how to sneak into the kitchen behind the dining hall during the period of confusion that ensued after meals to steal the sweets reserved for the older monks, as well as how to fall asleep at night by focusing on the crickets chirping in the cedar forest surrounding the temple complex. He also taught Kaoru how to read the sutras in his prayer book. “Here, you can borrow mine. Do you see the letters I wrote beside the characters? They’re a pronunciation guide. If you read the letters, you can follow along during the services until you learn the sutras.” “But how do I read the letters?” “Each letter represents a sound. It’s exactly like women’s script.” Kaoru’s sister, who was forbidden from learning Chinese characters, had taught him the syllabary used by the ladies of the imperial court. Her letters were smooth and flowing, but the notations Kaoru had written in the margins of the sutra’s text were sharp and blocky. “Why don’t you just use women’s script, then?” Kaoru asked. “Well, you see…” Kashiwagi shot a glance over his shoulder and lowered his voice. “We’re not allowed to write in our prayer books. The monk who trained me when I first entered the temple taught me this variation. The syllables are the same, but the letters look just like parts of Chinese characters. This way, we don’t get caught. You’ll learn how to read it soon enough. Now hurry up and copy what I wrote so I can have my book back.” Kashiwagi was supposed to do his daily chores with the other monks his age, but he often managed to get away to help Kaoru with his. Kaoru was still too young to be included with any of the other groups, so he was usually assigned simple tasks that required no supervision, such as dusting and polishing the menagerie of statues housed within the dozens of buildings in the temple complex. Many of these statues depicted a tall and muscular man with sharp fangs, golden eyes, and skin so blue it was almost black. As if the man’s physical features weren’t frightening enough, he always held a straight sword with a wide blade that curved into a crescent at its point. Kaoru was familiar with the cruel but delicate swords carried by magistrates from the eastern provinces, and he had even been allowed to hold one in his own hands before his father scolded him for indulging in uncouth behavior, but he had never before seen a sword of the type wielded by the wickedly scowling statues. One day, while helping Kaoru polish the delicate gold leaf adorning one of these statues, Kashiwagi explained that the man was Fudō Myōō, the Immovable Divine King. “You see how fierce he is?” Kashiwagi prompted. “I guess he’s kind of scary,” Kaoru responded, not wanting to seem cowardly. “His job is to frighten away the temptations that block the path to enlightenment. It’s said that the look on his face alone can freeze evildoers in their tracks.” “Then why does he have that big sword?” “The sword is to cut through ignorance. Don’t you think he’s impressive?” “No, I think he’s creepy. Why do these statues have to be everywhere?” “Our job as monks is to protect the nation,” Kashiwagi replied, echoing the abbot’s injunction when he first arrived at Enryaku Temple. “We look to Fudō as a source of strength and guidance. He is the guardian deity of this mountain.” “You mean that Fudō lives on Mount Hiei?” Kashiwagi took a few moments to consider his words before responding. “It’s probably more accurate to say that Fudō lives inside Mount Hiei. Or rather, I guess you could say that one of his avatars has chosen to serve as the spirit tasked with protecting Mount Hiei, which in turn protects the capital. When we chant sutras during services, we dedicate our prayers to Fudō and all other sentient beings. Every mountain in Japan has its own guardian king, and each king is sacred. That’s why so many temples are built on mountains.” Kaoru trusted Kashiwagi, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about his friend’s explanation. Many famous temples were built on mountains, certainly, but not every temple. Far from it, in fact. Kaoru was too young to have gathered much experience in the ways of the world, but even he knew that there were plenty of temples lining the flat avenues of the capital. These temples were adorned with handsome statues representing the buddhas and bodhisattvas of wisdom, healing, and compassion, and he’d never heard anything about “protecting the nation” before he came to Mount Hiei. Kaoru was beginning to suspect that there was something odd about Enryaku Temple. Could it be that Kashiwagi wasn’t aware of this? It was probably just his imagination. He didn’t actually know Kashiwagi that well, after all. As he and Kashiwagi continued to polish the statue of Fudō, Kaoru considered how to broach the subject. “Kashiwagi, what’s your name?” “Excuse me?” “Your name. What’s your name? You can’t really be named Kashiwagi,” Kaoru said. It was possible that his friend was indeed named after a character from one of the romances that his sister used to exchange with her friends, but it seemed far more likely that ‘Kashiwagi’ was a sobriquet bestowed by one of the older monks. “When I joined Enryaku Temple, I left behind my worldly identity and joined the holy order so that…” “You can protect the nation. I know! But what’s your real name? What did your family call you?” Kashiwagi frowned. “My mother called me Oniwaka.” Kaoru was shocked. A crude name like “Demon Child” wasn’t something that the daughter of a noble family would call her son, even as a joke. This meant that Kashiwagi more than likely hailed from a warrior family. What was he doing at Enryaku Temple, then? It was inconceivable that the son of a lowly warrior family would be granted the honor of serving as a monk at such a well-respected temple. His father once told him that soldiers were little more than peasants trained to use swords, and that they knew nothing of poetry or music or art. Kaoru’s eyes narrowed with resentment as he remembered watching the flames dance above his family’s house. Kashiwagi saw Kaoru’s expression and laughed. “I was never going to become a proper warrior. I was my mother’s second son, and I was always sick as a kid. Instead of teaching me to use a sword, my father hired someone to teach me how to read, hoping that I could still make myself useful to the family. I guess he gave up on that project. He sent me to live here when I was thirteen. That was four years ago. I was already engaged, but my fiancée’s family backed out of the arrangement. They made up a story about not being able to verify my lineage, but I assume that was just their strategy to upset my mother so badly that she didn’t object to the broken contract. I heard that they received an offer from one of the noble houses in the capital.” Kaoru thought of the girl his own father had once planned for him to marry when he came of age. Her front teeth had been blackened in a style that had long since gone out of favor, and her greasy forehead was covered with red blotches that lumped together like insect bites under her white makeup. Kaoru could imagine Kashiwagi’s relief to have escaped marriage. “But why did they let you become a monk here? I mean…” Kaoru trailed off, unsure of how to address the matter of Kashiwagi’s rank. “My family has served the Taira clan for generations. My father says that our branch of the family all but controls the Taira now. He claims that we might even marry into the imperial line in the near future. I’m not sure he knows what he’s talking about, but he does have a habit of getting his way in the capital.” Kaoru was impressed. He’d heard stories about the fantastic wealth of the Taira, and how they’d built a great city far to the east. Kaoru sometimes suspected that Kashiwagi only spent time with him because he was scorned by the other monks, and he supposed that this would make sense, given his menial background in the marital class. Still, he considered himself lucky to have met someone from such an interesting family. #
Spring gave way to summer as the weeks went by. Kaoru saw less of Kashiwagi. The older boy had impressed the abbot with his diligence, and he had been granted permission to begin the special training necessary to become a fully ordained monk of Enryaku Temple. Kashiwagi no longer sat in the back with Kaoru during worship services. Instead, he sat directly in front of the large statue of the deity Kaoru now knew to be Fudō Myōō. Kaoru was proud yet still somewhat resentful as he watched Kashiwagi perform esoteric hand gestures in time to the chanted sutras. Summer eventually turned into fall. Kaoru became lonely as the nights grew longer. He hardly ever saw Kashiwagi, and none of the other monks bothered to pay much attention to him at all. The main worship hall wasn’t heated, and services became increasingly painful to sit through. Kaoru hated the rituals. He hated the sutras he had to chant. He hated “protecting the nation.” More than anything, he hated Fudō Myōō, whose golden eyes glared at him from the shadows of everywhere he went in the temple complex. As he dusted the illustrated scrolls in a senior monk’s private library, Kaoru became so engrossed in chaining together a litany of complaints that the sun set before he noticed. He shivered as he folded his cleaning cloth and stepped out of the cloister. He desperately wanted to skip the evening worship service, but he was still small enough to stick out in the crowd of uniformly shaved heads. He would be missed, and there was nowhere he could hide if someone were sent to find him. Kaoru resigned himself to spending the next hour discretely wiping his nose with the coarse hem of his robe while kneeling on frozen legs. He may as well grit his teeth and head over to the worship hall. There were still a few minutes before the service began, and he might be able to take a short nap if he could manage to secure a spot in a back corner. No one was in the room when he arrived save for the giant statue of the monstrous Fudō. Kaoru glared at the divine king, whose carved expression of rage reflected his own anger and frustration. He had never seen a more hateful thing. The teachings of the buddhas and arhats were meant to be beautiful, a guiding light in the darkness of an uncertain world. Why did the monks of this temple choose to worship in the presence of something so ugly and terrifying? The evening bell rang, and the sound of footsteps echoed across the floorboards of the corridor outside of the worship hall. Kaoru was struck by a flash of inspiration. He dashed to the front of the room, jumped onto the altar platform, and scurried behind the statue of Fudō. He passed out of sight just as people started to enter the room. Kaoru sat with his back to the base of the statue while he caught his breath. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he noticed something peculiar. There was a door carved into the wall behind the statue. It wasn’t the usual sliding wooden frame paneled with mulberry paper, but a solid slab of old cedarwood fitted with iron hinges. It was probably the entrance to some kind of storeroom. Kaoru remembered that his father once had a similar door installed on the gate of the wall surrounding the manor’s storehouse. Since the door was located directly behind the statue, Kaoru doubted that anyone would see him if he tried to open it. He dropped down to the floor on the other side of the altar and pushed the door to test its weight. To his delight, he found that it swung inward on its hinges without making the slightest bit of noise. Kaoru was grateful for his small stature, which allowed him to squeeze through a slight crack in the doorway. It was surprisingly warm on the other side. Unlike the smooth plastered walls of the worship hall, the tunnel stretching in front of him was formed of packed earth broken by large chunks of stone. Braziers standing at even intervals cast an unsteady light. A steady breeze flowed from further down the passage. Kaoru assumed that he must be inside the body of the mountain. Curious where the tunnel might lead, he began walking. The sandy floor had a slightly downward slope. Kaoru tried to keep his eyes on the path, but he found his attention drawn to the images splashed onto the walls with thick globs of colored ink. They were painted in a brash and vibrant style that Kaoru had never seen on any of the screens or scrolls in the capital. As far as he could tell, these images all seemed to depict some version of Fudō Myōō. In one painting, Fudō had four arms and four legs. In another, he had eight eyes running in two columns down his face, their pupils slit like those of a cat. More often than not, Fudō’s snarling lips and protruding fangs had been painted with a shade of red so bright that it seemed to glisten from underneath the layers of ash that had accumulated on the walls around the braziers. Kaoru was disturbed by an especially expansive painting in which multiple avatars of Fudō poured out of tall green triangles representing the hills of Mount Hiei. He made a firm decision to ignore the paintings and look straight ahead as he walked. The intervals between torches grew longer. The tunnel was no longer warm, and the skin on Kaoru’s arms and neck had broken out in goosebumps. A sickly-sweet smell like an offering left too long on the altar blew in with the breeze coming from below. As Kaoru continued to walk, he heard the faint chorus of a sutra being recited. He felt a tinge of guilt that the service had started without him, only to realize that it would be impossible for the sounds of the worship hall to reach him here. The chanting must be coming from up ahead. Kaoru considered turning back, but he had already come this far. The corridor widened into the rocky chamber of a large cavern. Kaoru could see the black gleam of the robes of several senior monks as they stood in the flickering shadows of the torches while chanting in hoarse voices. They seemed oblivious to his approach. Kaoru scanned their gaunt faces, which were pale and slick with sweat. He wondered how long they’d been down in this tunnel. Just as he was on the verge of slinking back the way he’d come, he heard a scream from deeper inside the cave, where the walls and their grotesque paintings were not illuminated by firelight. Kaoru froze. The scream rang out again. It was distorted and inhuman, like the cry of an impossibly large cicada. Kaoru held his breath. He wanted to run, but he couldn’t turn his eyes away from the mouth of the yawning abyss in front of him. The row of monks continued chanting, their voices striking a fever pitch. Kaoru crouched in the smoky shadows of the walls, his eyes wide with fear. As he searched the room in a vain attempt to find something that might explain this eerie gathering, he was gradually able to make out a figure at the edge of the darkness that pooled further down the slope of the cavern floor. As the figure drew closer, Kaoru realized that it was Kashiwagi. A thin line trailed along the ground behind him as he dragged the wide blade of a sword across the gravel of the path. His robe, now black, was torn and disheveled. His eyes were blank, and he paid no mind to the small boy standing in his path and gaping at him in horror. The monks stopped chanting. Kashiwagi did not meet their gaze as he allowed the sword in his fist to fall to the ground. It was covered in a viscous ooze that did not reflect the torchlight. Kashiwagi’s hands and face were smeared with thick globs of the same foul substance. In the dim torchlight, Kaoru couldn’t see the color of the ichor that weighed down the folds of Kashiwagi’s black robe, but he could smell it. The earth below his former home had emitted the same acrid stench as it burned. “My brothers of Enryaku Temple, it is done,” Kashiwagi said, his voice jagged and raw. “I have met one of the lords of the mountain, and I have done what I must to protect the nation.”
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Day 25 Time is Come by Tejaswinee Roychowdhury
I have a gift. You could call me a fraud or a fortune teller, but I am neither. I can see Death. He is a man, a well-built man in a suit and a black overcoat. I see him when someone is about to die. He stands nearby, waiting, like a predator that doesn't need to hunt because the prey comes to him, unbeknownst. And I can see him right now, standing by her as she sways and plays the most soulful note on the violin. Who is she, you ask? Just someone I made love to last night. Someone who asked me to stay and chose to fall asleep in my arms, not as lovers, but as parties who extended the terms of a contract. She had hired me for the night. It is amazing, the unconventional opportunities you can find in this city, like low hanging fruits waiting to be plucked. I had come here to be a model and an actor, I stayed for the women and the money. This used to be an alternate way of life, but I think I lost track someday, immersed, not without a way out but without the will to get out. Many women who hunt me down and pay for my company are looking to have uninhibited fun, things they dare not talk about, things they whisper to me in hushed tones. They know I am not one to judge. They know I am just a service provider, a good service provider. And I am whatever they need me to be, whatever they want me to be. When I received last night's call, I took my bag pack, locked my apartment and left for work. My bag had all kinds of things, things the ladies love to love, things I won't tell you about. I drove to the rich part of the city and walked into the rich man's building. I took a fancy elevator and knocked on a sleek door. There she was, my earnings for the night. She greeted me, a glass of red in hand, a silk night gown hugging her shape. There was something so painful about her eyes. It was something I often encountered. Heartbroken women used to find me, I don't know how, but they did. All they wanted was human touch and to be loved. And I didn't complain. I don't know her story, but I do know how much her soul craved. She made it known before she slipped into a deep sleep. "Stay," she had whispered. I don't know when she woke up. But it was the sound of the violin that awakened me. I leaned back and looked at her. Unclothed, bathing in the light of the daybreak, she sat on a chair, facing the long glass windows, staring into the horizon, she played. That's when I saw him, emerging from the corner. I had been a witness to his appearances since as long as I could remember. Over the years I had plucked the courage to interact with this strange man. For some reason, just like no one noticed him, no one noticed our interactions either. I liked to think it was a privilege. But I didn't really know. "What are you waiting for?" I asked him. He smiled. "I have rarely heard such beautiful music. Mankind seems to have lost its taste, in general." "Or maybe you should be updated? It's not all bad, you know." He chuckled and continued to listen. I followed suit. I knew what was coming, I knew I didn't want to get caught with a naked and dead client. The police wouldn't believe a word I would say. There was no stopping Death either. There was no warning her. I quietly stepped out of the covers and got dressed. There was an envelope placed on the bed stand, with my name on it. Knowing what awaited her, I felt a pang of guilt. It would be like taking money from the dead. It's bad. But it would be worse if someone where to find my name scribbled in a rich dead woman's apartment. I put the envelope inside my bag and took one last long look at her. She seemed oblivious. I left. The city was always alive. That's the beauty of Los Angeles. I drove back to my apartment, took a shower and found half a pizza inside the fridge. I put it in the oven and turned on the television. Unlike most of the world, my mornings were lazy and I loved that. As I was about to bite into the pizza, there was a crash and my apartment door flew off its hinges. Horrified, I stared at the two policemen who had just entered, looking around. How did they find me? I had instinctively dived behind the sofa and managed to crawl out of the apartment, without them noticing. I started running... I am not sure how far I ran or when I walked back into the woman's apartment. It was as if I was pulled into this place by an invisible string. It was uncanny. And I certainly wasn't prepared for what happened next. A man suddenly walked through me. He seemed to trip and looked back, straight at me, no... through me. He didn't know I was there. He had a camera in his hand, was dressed in a plain shirt and a pair of jeans. I looked around and I saw other men. Men in suits, men in uniforms, men in gloves and another man with a camera. Breathing heavily I walked into the bedroom and stared at the man on the bed. Pale, undressed and throat slit open... I almost didn't recognise myself. And beside the bed was her, undressed, lying on the floor, a knife lodged in her ribs; red everywhere, and a violin smashed into bits. "He was really angry, my ex-husband, don't you remember?" Startled, I turned around. She smiled sadly. "It's my fault, I'm sorry." I couldn't understand what she was talking about. She saw the confusion on my face and looked down, tears in her eyes. "I shouldn't have asked you to stay..." She paused. "Your friend asked me to find you. He said that many don't remember, or choose not to remember, and some create new memories to replace the ones that are painful. He told me that eventually, they must remember, so they can move on. So, tell me Jason, what is it that you remember?”
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Day 26 The Hunter's Wife by Andi Brooks
There was once in the province of Shinano a hunter who roamed the mountain forest in search of game. One morning in the month of no gods he bid goodbye to his mother at the door of their cottage with a heavy heart. Of late, the once plentiful forest game had become increasingly scarce. There were some who whispered that the forest had become inhabited by malignant spirits, but the hunter had no time for such fanciful tales. All the same, he was worried. Winter was drawing nigh and it would be hard upon them indeed if he could not build up a good store of meat to see them through the long, cold, snowbound months. After trekking through the day without sighting a single creature in the eerily silent forest, the hunter found himself in a place which he did not recognize. Pausing to take his bearings, a flash of movement caught his eye. He stealthily advanced through the trees to the edge of a small clearing, in the midst of which grazed a magnificent stag with a doe by its side. The beast would provide a fine supply of meat. The hunter slid an arrow from his quiver and nocked it. Holding his breath, he slowly raised his bow, drew back the string, took aim and fired a deadly shot. The stag snorted and reeled before crashing to the ground. The doe’s head snapped around, locking eyes with the hunter. He felt himself paralyzed by the animal’s blazing stare. An icy cold dread crept through his soul as he tried in vain to avert his terror-filled eyes. Penetrating his head like a burning spear, a voice roared inside his skull. “I shall be avenged! I shall be avenged!” The words were repeated over and over until the doe abruptly turned and trotted away into the forest, leaving the hunter dazed, his head ringing in pain. He said nothing of the disturbing incident to his mother when the returned home with his prize. Instead, he redoubled his efforts to seek out the elusive game in the forest. Through hard labor and perseverance, he was able to secure enough food to see himself and his mother through the harshest winter any could recall. When the spring thaw finally released them from their icy bonds, he had cast his strange experience in the forest from his mind.
One fall evening, while hurrying home from an errand in a nearby village, the hunter espied the form of a young woman ahead of him upon the road. Drawing alongside her, the light of his lantern revealed that she was both a stranger and exceedingly pleasing to look upon. Curious as to why she traveled alone in a remote area at such an hour, he inquired as to where she was headed. “I am on a pilgrimage to the Suwa Grand Shrine,” she replied. “But that is many days from here,” he said in surprise. “There are no inns or places for a traveler to rest in this area. In these lawless times it is dangerous for a young woman to travel alone even in daylight hours.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “My father died many years ago and I am taken away from home hunting for long periods. Although she never complains, I know that my elderly mother often suffers from loneliness. It would give her great pleasure to share your company even for just one night. If you would deign to accept our humble hospitality, I would be honored to escort you to the nearest inn on the morrow.” The woman smiled coyly, thanked him for his kindness and accepted his invitation. The hunter’s mother was immediately drawn to the young woman and delighted in her companionship. With genuine humility, she asked if she would not consider resting with them a while longer before recommencing her pilgrimage. Displaying mutual affection for her hostess, the young woman willingly agreed to delay her departure. The days turned to weeks, the weeks to months. The seasons turned full circle and found the young woman and the hunter husband and wife. She bore him a child; a girl of a beauty exceeding her own. The couple had been happy before the birth, but the new addition to their family brought them a joy beyond compare. When the hunter’s mother passed away that winter, his family provided him with solace.
When the child was in its fourth year, the hunter returned home late one evening after many days in the forest. His wife greeted him as usual at the door of their home. She took his bow and hung it on its hook by the doorway. “You must be hungry, my love,” she said as she turned her attention to a pot of stew simmering over the fire in the center of the room. “That I am,” he replied. “But before I eat I will look in on our dear child.” His wife placed her hand lightly upon his arm to stay him. “She was restless this evening. She only fell asleep shortly before your return. Please do not disturb her. Eat first.” The hunter smiled, kissed his wife upon her forehead and seated himself by the fire. “Eat well my love,” she smiled as she handed him a large bowl of the steaming stew. It tasted every bit as delicious as it smelled. After two bowls, the hunter sat back and patted his full stomach. “I dared never say it when she was alive, but you are a better cook than even my dear mother, and there were none in the region that could surpass her art. Now, to look in on the little one.” The hunter lit a lantern, crossed to the bedroom and slowly opened the wooden door. As the flickering light chased away the shadows, the sight illuminated within filled him with a horror that robbed him of his senses. Instead of a scene of peaceful slumber, the room resembled a butcher’s workshop. The walls were splashed with blood from floor to ceiling. The bedding was soaked crimson. Of their daughter there was no sign. The hunter fell back from the doorway, gasping for air. Wild-eyed, he staggered around to find his wife kneeling by the hearth stirring the pot of stew, her face hidden by her long hair. “How was she?” she asked without looking up. “Gone! Gone!” he blurted out. Ladling stew into a bowl, she said calmly, “Gone? She is not gone. She is right here.” Hope rising, the hunter stared frantically around the room. “Where? Where is she?” “Here,” his wife replied, turning with the bowl in her outstretched hands, “Was she not delicious?” Uncomprehending, the hunter raised his gaze from the bowl to her face. He mouthed a silent scream and collapsed to his knees at the sight of his wife’s terrifying countenance. Her eyes blazed with a demonic hatred. They were the very same eyes which had bored into his soul in the forest clearing all those years ago. Circling the room, she approached the paralyzed hunter until her face almost touched his. “Did you forget your crime?” she hissed. “I did not. You slew my beloved, he whom I loved more than anything in this world. Now I have slain the thing you loved most in this world. I could have killed you many times over as you slept, but I wanted you to suffer as I have suffered. From here on you will know the agonies which I have endured.” She turned and walked out of the house. Half mad, the hunter crawled to the open door. Illuminated by the full moon, the footprints of the thing he had called his wife led through the freshly fallen snow to the forest. On the edge of the trees, a doe stood by a kimono discarded upon the ground. The animal turned and stared directly at him. A voice roared in his head. “I am avenged!”
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Day 27 Catacombs of the Doomed by Steve Carr
Leaving the brothel through the alley exit in the middle of the night, Daniel took his wedding ring from his pants pocket and slid it on. In the chill and damp of heavy fog, he tucked in his shirt, zipped up his windbreaker, and lit a cigarette. He looked both ways down the long narrow brick lined alley. What little light there was coming from two lampposts at opposite ends of the alley were no more than small orbs of white light, like embers in a dying fire, surrounded by the thick hazy mist. Taking two puffs of the cigarette he turned toward the faint sound of traffic and began walking. His footsteps echoed along the walls like muted claps of thunder. Passing by a dumpster reeking of rotting vegetables, he stopped, alarmed by a large gray rat that crossed his path and disappeared in the fog. He inhaled smoke from the cigarette and exhaled, blowing rings that dissipated, then continued on, picking up his pace. Sensing he was coming to the end of the alley, but not able to clearly see the street ahead, he tried to visualize his location, and realized he had no idea whether to turn left or right once he reached the street. He threw the half-finished cigarette on the pavement. Ahead of him a figure clothed in attire like a nun's habit appeared, then another, and then another. Stopping, he tried to make out their faces, and wondered if it was the poor visibility of the night that made their head pieces to the long tunics that touched the ground look dark gray. “Ladies,” he said, with a hint of questioning. In the next instant a burlap bag was pulled down over his head and whatever hit him knocked him out cold. When he awoke, water sloshed around his feet and the scent of decayed earth and sewage filled his nostrils. As he shifted, chains around his wrists and ankles that held him against a slimy earthen wall rattled. The back of his head where he had been hit throbbed with pain. A flame from a single torch fixed to a wall in an otherwise dark corridor provided the only light. A row of bars separated the room he was in and the corridor. Dripping water echoed in the cold stillness. “Help,!” he cried out. “That will do you no good,” a man's raspy voice said to him from the darkness on the other side of the room. Daniel strained to see. Another man, shrouded in shadow, was against a far wall. “Where am I?” Daniel asked. “I don't know for certain ,” the man said. “Somewhere beneath the city.” “How long have you been here?” Daniel squinted hard, trying to bring the sight of the man hidden in the dark into better focus. “I have no idea,” the man said. “You'll find as I have that time becomes meaningless very quickly here.” “What do they want from us?” Daniel asked. “You don't want to know,” the man said. “What's your name?” Daniel asked. “That too has lost any meaning,” the man said. “Mine is Daniel,” he whispered. *** “Wake up,” Daniel heard, quickly opening his eyes and trying to separate the nightmare he was having from the one he was in. From further down the corridor came the sound of rattling keys, the clicking of a lock mechanism, and the opening of a cell's metal door on rusty hinges. “Please God, no more,” a man's voice shrieked in the darkness. “What is it?” Daniel asked in a hushed tone. “You were asleep,” the man in his cell said. “I heard you snoring. Never let them catch you asleep.” As the screams of the man down the corridor faded, and the cell door closed with a resounding bang, Daniel felt something tugging on the hem of his pants. Looking down, a large, white rat was beginning to crawl up his leg. Even in the very faint light he could see its bright pink eyes. He shook his leg hard trying to shake it loose. The rat jumped from his leg, making a splash as it landed in the fetid water that covered the cell floor and swam into the darkness. “What is it?” the other man asked. “A rat. An albino rat, I think,” Daniel said. “These women who are holding us - are they part of some cult?” “They're not women,” the man said. The corridor brightened with the light from more torches. “What . . . ?” Daniel started. “Quiet, you fool,” the other man said. Outside the cell three of the habit-clad figures appeared, each carrying a torch. It was then that Daniel noticed the hems of their garments were not touching the water. They floated slightly above it, standing upright in the air, solid but weightless. The bright light of the torch flame shone on their faces. Daniel almost giggled, thinking he was looking at Halloween masks. Never before had he seen a living person with skin so disfigured by sores oozing with pus and blood. Their eyes sunk back in their skeletal faces. One of the figures took a ring of keys from a rope around its waist and put the key into the lock. As they opened the door and came in, their stench of rot and decay filled the space. Bypassing Daniel they went to the other man. Then Daniel's saw the other man's face. His eyelids had been cut away and his lower lip was gone. “No, no, it wasn't me,” the man screamed as they unlocked his chains. “It was him who was talking. Take him.” They reached beneath the man's arms, lifted him up and carried him out as he weakly kicked at the water and tried to struggle free of their grasp. “It was him,” the man shrieked over and over as they closed the cell door and disappeared down the corridor. Back in the light of the single torch in the corridor, Daniel felt warm urine running down his leg. *** Resisting the need to sleep, Daniel began recounting the fairy tales and fables he had heard or read when he was a child, but each one had an element of evil, like a witch or an ogre, so he gave it up and tried to concentrate on his wife; her looks, the smell of her hair, the lilt in her voice. This only left him feeling more despondent. That he was happily married made his going to the brothel even more reprehensible. It had been his only marital indiscretion in ten years of marriage, but he blamed it for him being in the situation he found himself. “Other men had done far worse things, so why me?” he wondered as his eyes began to close. *** Awaking to the sound of heavy breathing, Daniel quickly realized it was his own that had awakened him. Raising his head and seeing several torches on the walls around him he also realized he was no longer in the cell but in another larger room that smelled of sulfur and rotten meat. He attempted to sit up, but was held down on a wood table by straps around his legs, chest and arms. Brackish water dripped from small rust colored, spiral stalactites that hung from the ceiling. Drops splashed onto his bare chest and stomach. “So, you've awoken.” Daniel turned his eyes toward the direction of the voice. Where nothing had been only a moment before now stood one of the habit-clad beings, its face hidden in the shadows of its head piece. “Why are you doing this?” Daniel asked, aware of how parched his throat was. “Why indeed?” it said, the pitch of its voice alternating from feminine to masculine. “You were marked.” It remained perfectly still for a moment as if it were thinking what to say next, then disappeared. Daniel blinked his eyes, hard, disbelieving what he had just seen. “Marked?” he said aloud. Then a metal door covered in green and blue mildew opened and four of the beings entered. They surrounded the table and tossed back their head pieces, uncovering their ghostly white faces dripping with infection. They bent down and placed their blood smeared lips on his chest and abdomen and began sucking the blood from Daniel's body through his skin. He screamed until he passed out. *** When he awoke he was back in the cell and shackled against the wall. His right eye hurt even more than the sores left on his torso. He turned his head toward the torch in the corridor. Unable to blink his right eye, he knew what had been done to it. The clotted blood around the eye socket tugged at the surrounding skin. He closed his left eye as what little light there was in the cell seared both eyes. His right eye throbbed with pain and tears ran down his cheeks. Then the door to the cell opened. He watched as the beings carried in another man, pulled a burlap sack from his head, and stood him against the far wall and chained him there. Daniel looked away as they turned their faces toward him as they exited. “Speak quietly,” Daniel said. “My name is Daniel. What's yours?” “Robert,” the man whispered. “What is this place?” “Catacombs of some kind,” Daniel said. “Were you snatched from the street?” “I was at home watching television,” Robert said. “My wife and children were asleep. I didn't hear those things come into my house.” The sound of a cell door opening reverberated through the corridor, and then the screams of a man pleading to be left alone. The door closed and the man's screams faded as he was carried away. Robert whispered prayers. “That won't help you,” Daniel said. *** As the four beings carried Daniel toward the room with the metal door he began to struggle much harder than he had previously. As they tightened their grips he fought even harder, finding that their lack of footing on solid floor gave them little leverage as he knocked them from side to side. It occurred to him even as he threw wild punches that seldom landed that others must have fought also, but it didn't deter him. Just before reaching the door, Daniel was dropped into the slimy water. He hopped to his feet and ran down the length of the corridor, peripherally seeing all the other cells and figures hidden inside among the shadows against the walls. At the end of the corridor he rammed his shoulder against the bars causing them to break free from the decaying earth. He stumbled out into a pitch dark passageway, slipping in foul smelling water, then blindly ran through a long tunnel until he reached an opening to a sewage pipe. Sliding down it, he landed feet first in a canal alongside a garbage dump. Climbing over mounds of trash he came out on a dirt road leading into the city. He looked up at the night sky and thanked God. *** Six months later Daniel sat in a pew at the back of the church and adjusted the patch over his eye. He crossed himself then got up and went out. He pulled the collar of his coat up as a he was buffeted by a cold wind. Twilight lengthened the shadows cast by trees along the cobblestone street. He quickened his pace and reached the front door of his home just as the church bells rang. The burlap bag was slipped over his head and he was knocked unconscious before he had time to react. *** After the doctor delivered the newborn baby he handed him to the nurse. She turned, and as the others in the delivery room were busy, she surreptitiously lifted the infant's left heel. She put it to her lips, sucking a small amount of blood from it, leaving a very small mark in the shape of a pentagram.
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Day 28 Waldeinsamkeit by Chitra Gopalakrishnan
A mild June sun sprawls outward in a pale yellow fan of light against the sky in the village of Satoli in the Kumaon hills of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. Now and then, its liquid sunshine casts a translucent light on the elevated, snow-clad, Himalayan mountains and lingers over the peaks of Chaukhamba, Trishul, Nanda Devi, Sunanda Devi and Panchachuli and then it abruptly plays truant. When it does, these giants turn, within moments, into shadowy, sentinels who grimly guard the horizon. Then on the spur of the moment, its sunbeams open out again through the marshmallow clouds, impish puffs that seek to distract these flinty mountains from their cold, stony disposition. The effect of this manoeuvre on me is magical: a floating sky with drifting peaks of silver. Yet it seems to me the sun is wilfully keeping much of its story, much of its savagery, tucked within these milky-white billows. I know of such obliqueness. Of such guardedness to full disclosure. Of how to be a pale reflection of one’s true self. I know it well. In this low morning light, I am out on a walk in the forest close to the village, one that is covered with lichen for miles. I have been told by a clairvoyant that between the trees of this forest will be my doorway to a new world. Foolish, misplaced faith in her misleading science, you may exclaim. And what a rash and reckless thing for a woman to do, you may rebuke. Foolish, female flâneur, I can almost hear you say, sauntering in the jungle as if it were sanitised city streets, rummaging through its dark corners, peering behind its façades, going where she is not supposed to go. But I have decided to take my chance with my clairvoyant’s illogic. Logic, reason and counselling having yielded no answers all these years. As I enter the forest, the fuzziness in the air makes the moss-veiled pine, chestnut, rhododendron and oak trees look like glistening, bottle-green ghosts, tipped as their crowns are with bleached sunlight. The pine trees with amber crusts of resin on their barks catch the straying sunlight in quite another way, in a manner that make them look rheumy-eyed, glowing, Halloween ghosts. As I plod in alone-ness along the wood-incensed trail, I notice that the raucous langurs and rhesus monkeys prefer to line trees that bear hisalus, petite golden-yellow Himalayan raspberries, box berries called kafals and plums. Sun or no sun. They cause a clamour all around. The branches of these trees thrash about with their clashes of rivalry, with their collective monkey hysteria. The bird songs are replaced by bird shrills. And the air around comes alive forcefully to the fragrance of ripened berry droppings, one that quickly turns sickly sweet. I pass the modest shrine of Goraknath, the deity of the hills, set beneath a huge horse chestnut tree. On its stone-hewn steps sits a chunky, sardonic-looking, ridiculously smelly cat. As it squats amidst the tree’s fallen white candyfloss flowers, with hooded eyeballs, a stretched-out sinewy tail and with a cool, dry and balanced exterior, a naïve trekker must be forgiven for the impression of it being in a yogic trance. In reality, it lies in wait of jays, drongos, mynas, parakeets and wingtails that seek the tree’s shadows. I spot a solitary, prowling red fox drive it away. The tomcat leaves with reluctance on its stumpy legs, virulently meowing, hissing, its claws out. Its curled contemptuous lip, its piratical tilt of the head and its long backward is an indication that today’s fight might be lost but the outcome of the war is yet to be determined. A porcupine takes this chance to waddle up and feast on fallen nuts from the tree. It is joined by an unruly band of fleshy mountain squirrels. As I walk deeper into the forest, I become keenly aware of the green gradient within its interior. Of looking into all manner of greens, where one shade of green insidiously blends into another, till my consciousness is trapped in a green blur. The grass is forest-green, the creepers parakeet-green, the lichens olive-green, shrubs of wild garlic and basil chartreuse-green, the water within mud puddles moss-green, the slimy, bulgy-eyed frogs’ a lurid, neon-green, and the undersides of the Himalayan barbets, that fly in a group with a rush of wings, an assortment of green tints. Over the hours, as the forest lures me into its liminal corners, to its furthest parts, to its innermost places removed from everyday existence, to where the rare, spongy, honeycombed morel mushrooms grow and to where a loose band of twelve goat antelopes, the ghorals as they are known here, fuss about as they forage for food and mates, I feel the forest size me up. Perhaps, to see if I am up to waldeinsamkeit. Roughly translated from German, it means the feeling of being alone in the woods. It is a feeling that comes over you when you are at peace with the forest, or say in your environment, or with yourself. My school teacher had explained the concept to me years and years ago. Am I? Will I be? I wonder, even as I hear the ghoral’s hollow barks. I have come here to test precisely this. Whether I will hold up to the extremities of life, its contradictions, be they conditions, circumstances or emotions, which no doubt the forest will throw at me, and still manage to find my zen place. As a person, as a woman, if I do, the jigsaw puzzle of my life could come together. Perhaps. As I approach the ghoral’s, with what I assume to be soft, steady, muted footsteps, their barks turn to snorts of alarm, sharp and high in tenor. I instinctively know they have been watching me for long, testing me, my intent. Exactly how long their wide-eyed vigil has lasted I am unclear but I see with dismay their tan legs and grey-brown coats disappear into the twilight and hear the receding sounds of their hoofs. The minute I see them run I wish I could do the same. This adventure of mine seems ludicrous at this moment. In this instant, I am wild with fright, unnerved by my risky presumption, my attempt to rewrite my own fate by changing my setting. I would think exposing myself to vulnerability like the ghorals should feel like courage, except it does not. Excitement mixed with fear makes for a ghastly goulash. I am ridden with a sinking feeling. One that tells me my foolhardy experiment is bound to fail before it begins. As the sun begins to crumble and as the apertures of light begin to narrow there is an alteration in the opacity of my environs. Everything around me turns into a shade of midnight green, a damp, dense midnight green one at that. The vegetation takes on a measured, indistinguishable, dark hue and the forest keeps up with the stillness in the atmosphere. It reminds me of an artful painter’s solid, uninterrupted, consistent brushstrokes, both in depth and shading, the attempt to work up towards a metaphor of stability. The bird songs get tinier and a sense of quiet settles with the darkness. But the silence is not an easy one. The wind in the trees sounds like a drawn-out hiss. The forest is sullen, taut and braced like a nocturnal predator as if to resist some sudden attack from outside. As I stand uncertainly, feeling idiotic, wanting to escape back into my world on the one hand, yet aware of and responsive to a shiver of anticipation that sets in. I give in to the latter. I succumb to a want deep inside to be caught by something in the wilderness. To be set upon. To be made to see my own darkness, the extent and the horror of my malevolence, the deepest of my deeps. To be shown what I really am. All my life the only way I have known how to fight the darkness is to be the darkness. I have thought that I could lose the dread of demons and devils inside by being them. As I crouch, here and now, from the world, with half my soul taken away, I want to know that there is another way to face my enemy within, of what I am truly frightened of. Discover a new enormity, a way to live with myself. I know this fight is one to regain my soul. Twelve years ago, when in my early thirties, I was pinned down to the bottom of existence in love, or should I say an extra-marital affair. The man was an unbearable egotist, as well as a liar, who would neither leave me nor his wife. As I thrashed and struggled to get free, I could only swim towards the surface of life and protect my own sense of self-worth by destroying him and his life’s work. He was a painter. It was easy to set fire to his studio without ever being found out in the guise of an electric short circuit and easier still to anonymously mail his wife two years later and tell her about the string of women in his life to trample his marriage, his life, underfoot. I have wanted to be free myself of this evil ever since but it lives within, smouldering, disembodied, consuming my soul, its substance. My solitary foray into the forest is to be the flow state so as to arrive at my truths, accept them and seek answers. Psychologists and spiritualists together define it as a physical phenomenon in which we are consciously in accord with what we’re doing and what we are experiencing so that it throws up answers we seek. My best friend sees this inquiry of mine as my death wish, as my capricious disregard of personal safety and well-being, as the result of my inability to handle my reality. The wraith-silver disc of the moon, hanging lonely in the sky, takes me to the forest pond, natural, man-made or a run-off gathering from the nearby Gaula river, I cannot say. I don’t resist its lead and choose to sit at the pond’s edge, on a moss-buffed boulder along with the thickets that surround it, and though I don’t touch the water, I know it is ice-cold. Audible over the silence of the forest are the clicks of cicadas, the skittish noises of aphids, the chittering of woodworms beneath the gnarled roots of trees wedged by the pool and the crunch of dry, fallen leaves beneath my feet. But most of all, I take in the lonely rhythm of the water, its swishes, clunks, swells and clops, as it washes over cobbles, pebbles, gravel and silt, and the muffled sounds of the many submerged denizens of the deep. Phytoplankton, the zooplankton, cold water fishes. This is what the sunken aquatic ecosystem must have, this is what the murk and slither beneath is all about, I think. I spot two ruddy shelducks hurriedly tip themselves into the far end of the pond and then just as hurriedly fly away. Were they here to lay eggs in this abandoned place at night? Or am I imagining things? I then hear rustlings. Is it a soft-footed leopard, I wonder? A direful picture of it plunging its jaws into me, into my ripped-open belly, with malicious merriment, even as my limbs flay about, imprints itself in my mind. I struggle to adjust to such contrarieties, real and imagined. What I don’t imagine in the next moments but certainly feel, or should I rather say experience, with clarity, at the edge of the pond, is a peculiar force at work. Something soft and yielding that makes this space not so threatening anymore but a congenial and safe one, infused with a limitless energy that is both alluvial and aquatic. This energy brings me to a point of unbearable expectancy where I am vividly present to myself, to my whole self, good and bad parts, qualities and defects, past and present. As I am to the reality of the jungle, its ineluctable laws that support both life and death, good and evil in the same measure. In this balance of contrarieties, where everything is real, everything is true, everything is just as it is, I experience the oneness of the universe, the falling away of the dual hierarchy of a creator and the created universe and the false dichotomy of good and evil. While it is difficult for me to corral this experience into words, impossible even, what I can say is that it comes to me that good and evil are not two mutually exclusive entities but two different functions of life, and I realise that all possible conditions or states of existence reside within life at each moment. I know at this point that life simultaneously possesses the potential for both good and evil, and even when manifesting one, it is never devoid of the potential for the other. And that it is up to one to accept one’s whole being, make choices mindfully to make up for past choices until one can reach a state of purity, a state of being that is beyond good and evil, beyond moral dilemmas. The forest has spoken to me. It has made sense of my incomprehensible situation with a simple yet potent message. It has helped me negotiate my self-doubt, my anxiety, my shameful feeling out of step and returned my soul. It has given me my waldeinsamkeit.