Day 36 Simon Grey and the Yamamba by Charles Kowalski
First published in Voyagers: The Third Ghost (Pikeville, NC: Freedom Fox Press, 2020), pp. 117-132. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.
I cried out in alarm.
This is not a very clever thing to do when you’re traveling through a dangerous country, trying your best to avoid discovery. But it’s hard not to do when you’re walking down a forest road at dusk and just a few yards in front of your face, a small animal flies into the air.
To make matters worse, I involuntarily ducked behind Oyuki. I had been trying hard to make a good impression on her, hoping she would see me as a strong protector on the journey. But at the first sign of danger, I ran behind her like a child hiding behind his mother’s skirt.
“Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!” I gasped in an attempt to redeem myself a little with the erudition I had gained at sea under a Shakespeare-loving captain. “What was that? Some new kind of yokai?”
Oyuki and I were both born with the ability to see the world of ghosts and spirits. This is an awful nuisance if you live in haunted London, so I had tried to escape by going to sea. A ship bound for Japan seemed most likely to offer a long voyage free from ghosts, so on that fateful day in 1620, I eagerly signed up as a cabin boy. But a shipwreck made me first a castaway and now a fugitive, as Oyuki and I made our furtive journey to the English trading post of Hirado with help from the yokai, the spirits that wandered around Japan by night.
In the twilight, we could see the animal above us. It was a fox. And it was not in fact flying but caught in a snare trap. It now dangled by a rope from a tall bamboo stalk, thrashing around in a vain attempt to free itself, yipping and barking madly.
“The poor thing,” Oyuki said. “Let’s get it down.”
I grasped the bamboo and bent it until the fox was within Oyuki’s reach. She took the fox gently in her arms and freed it from the rope. “Yoshi, yoshi,” she crooned, cuddling it and stroking it between its ears. “Are you hungry? I’m sorry we can’t offer you your favorite fried tofu or inari-zushi, but at least we have plenty of cucumbers.”
Taking the cue, I unslung my pack and took out a cucumber. Oyuki sat cradling the fox in her lap and fed it piece by piece. The fox ate voraciously and scampered away, pausing to look over its shoulder and give us one last bark that I took to mean “thank you.”
We watched it out of sight before picking upour packs, and resumed our trek along the riverbank. Since we were fugitives from the Shogun, whose chief advisor held such an interest in our gift that he had imprisoned both of us in Edo Castle to discover our “secret,” we stayed away from the well-traveled and patrolled Tokaido road. Instead, we followed rivers, guided at night by a froglike water sprite called a kappa whose fondness for cucumbers was the reason for our abundant supply of them.
As we walked, Oyuki, who was born in Japan, pointed out various sights, both to teach me Japanese and to help me understand this unique country. “That’s a torii,” she would say, pointing to a wooden gate in the middle of the forest. “It’s the entrance to a shrine to Inari, one of the eight million gods supposed to dwell everywhere in nature. And that…” she would say, pointing to a statue by a wayside temple, “is a Buddhist saint named Amida. People who believe in him hope to be reborn in a paradise called the Pure Land.”
I tried to wrap my mind around these names. For me, even with a clergyman father, I struggled to remember all the Twelve Apostles. I continually marveled at how the Japanese managed to keep all these heavenly beings straight.
As we walked, the sound of rushing water grew louder. Suddenly, the trail veered away from the river as the water cascaded into a narrow gorge between two high, sheer cliff faces. It was an awe-inspiring sight, but a formidable obstacle for us. Our yokai guide could probably navigate the river with no difficulty, but there was no space for us humans to walk between the rapids and the rocky walls. As we stood there, wondering what to do, a faint sound reached my ears over the roaring of the falls. For a moment, I wondered whether something was wrong with my hearing, because in that desolate spot, I thought I heard the tinkling of a bell.
A moment later, we saw the source of the sound. Coming down the trail in the opposite direction was a monk in Buddhist robes and a broad-brimmed straw hat. The sound I had taken for a bell came from the metal rings at the tip of his wooden staff.
I panicked and resisted the urge to hide behind Oyuki again. Apart from the Shogun’s guards, a monk was the last person I wanted to meet. I was dressed as a bozu, a young monk. The disguise had gotten us safely out of Edo, but any real monk would see right through it. I hastily put on my takuhatsu-gasa--a domed hat that concealed my foreign face—and tried to look pious.
“Hello!” the monk called to us. “Where are you headed?”
“That way,” Oyuki answered vaguely. “Just wondering how to get to the other side of the gorge.”
“This path takes you to the village,” the monk said, pointing back the way he had come. “But the little path that branches off to the right goes up the mountain and down the other side. You’ll be able to pick up the river from there.”
“Thanks!” said Oyuki.
The monk turned to go, but then paused. “I’d strongly urge you, though, to find lodgings in the village tonight and set off again in the morning. You don’t want to be on the mountain after dark with the risk of running into a sudden storm—or worse, the yamamba.”
Oyuki thanked him politely, and I heard the receding tinkle of the rings on his staff as he continued onward.
Once he was well on his way, I pushed back my hat. “What’s a yamamba?” I asked Oyuki. Instead of answering, she pointed at the monk’s retreating figure. “Look.”
I followed her point and noticed a bulge in the back of the monk’s robe, right below his waist.
“What’s that?” I said.
“I think it’s a tail.”
I turned and gave her an incredulous look. “What?”
“That monk is probably the fox we helped. Some foxes are messengers of Inari and have powerful magic. They can disguise themselves as other animals, or even humans, so well you’d never know—unless they forget themselves and show their tails.”
She set off down the path, and I hastened to keep up with her. Soon, we came to a smaller path branching off to the right. Without hesitation, she turned onto it.
I stopped at the crossroads. “You’re planning to climb the mountain?” I asked in disbelief.
“Kitsunebi!” Oyuki called.
A ball of blue fire materialized in front of her. This was the kitsunebi, another of our yokai guides, and it illuminated the path with a pale light. With its help, we had traveled by night and slept in secluded places by day. But even so, after the monk-or-possibly-fox’s warning, the mountain path looked too dark and dangerous for my taste.
“What else would you have us do?” she said. “It’s less risky to push on than to go where there are people who might report us to the Shogun’s guards.”
“What about the yamamba?” I called after her, still no closer to knowing what that meant. But she was already on her way.
Oyuki set a fast pace, even when climbing the steep slope, and I struggled to keep up with her. The kitsunebi, of course, followed her rather than me, and I had to hurry to stay within its circle of light if I wanted to see the rocks and tree roots underfoot before they could twist my ankles.
As we neared the summit, I heard an ominous rumble of thunder, soon followed by the patter of raindrops on the leaves overhead. Before long, the rain came down in torrents. Within minutes, my robes were completely soaked, and the rocks underfoot grew so slippery that even Oyuki slowed her pace to a crawl. Lightning flashed in the distance, followed a few seconds later by another thunderclap. Oyuki stopped and turned to me, probably to confer about what we should do, and I wondered the same thing myself. We were so close to the top that it would take us almost as long to go down this side as the far side. Whether we chose to turn back, go on, or stay put and seek shelter, we were equally easy targets for lightning.
But her first question was, “Do you smell that?”
I could smell nothing but wet earth, wet wood, and wet cloth. But soon after she asked, a different, unexpected scent reached my nostrils.
“Wood smoke?” I said.
She nodded. “Where there’s fire, there’s bound to be life. Come on!”
We forged ahead, climbing our careful way over the slippery ground, until we reached what I dared to hope was the summit. To our right, a sheer cliff dropped to the river far below, and to our left, the possible source of the smoke: a small house made of wooden beams pushed into odd angles by time. The windows were shuttered against the storm, but under the broad eaves hung a red paper lantern, swaying wildly in the wind but still lit with a flickering light. It was the most welcome sight I could imagine.
As we stared in wonder, the door slid open. Behind it was an extremely old woman, her long, white hair unbound and unkempt, hastily adjusting her disheveled kimono. When she saw us, her eyes widened with understandable surprise.
“What in the world are you doing up here?” she said in a voice that sounded cracked and rusty from long disuse. “Come in before you get struck by lightning!”
We hurried through the door and stood on the packed-earth floor of the entryway, trying to wring as much water out of our clothes as possible. When we had gone from dripping to merely soaked, we stepped out of our sandals and up onto the tatami straw-mat floor of the living room. In the center, a fire burned in the open hearth, an iron pot hanging over it. The smell of stewed vegetables filled the room, making my stomach growl.
“Now, who might you be?” the old woman said. “And what are two children doing out here on their own?”
“My name is Oyuki, and this is Simon,” Oyuki replied, deftly avoiding the second part of the question. “And you are?”
“Around these parts, they call me Hotchopa.”
“Do you get many guests up here?” Oyuki said. “I wouldn’t have imagined it was a very well-traveled road.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” she said. “I’ve had many weary travelers come in for supper. Of course, I wasn’t expecting anyone on a night like this, but you came at the perfect time. I was just getting ready to give my old bones a soak in the bath, and then have some dinner. I hope you like nanban-ni.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever tried it,” I said. “What is it?”
“Ni means ‘stew’,” Oyuki explained, “and nanban means…well, no offense, but ‘southern barbarian’, their term for Europeans. It’s vegetables stewed in their idea of Western style, with fried onions and red peppers.”
I had no energy to object. If Hotchopa wanted to serve us a hot meal, I was willing to forgive the name of the dish, for both the cultural snub and the shaky sense of direction.
“Here’s the bath,” Hotchopa said, sliding aside a door to a smaller room. In the center stood a wooden tub, resting on a metal pan atop a stone firebox with embers glowing inside.
Oyuki recoiled. For some reason I had yet to learn, she possessed a deep-seated fear of hot water. “Simon can go first,” she said.
“Very well,” Hotchopa replied. “Then you can come and help me in the kitchen.”
I passed through the door. As soon as Hotchopa closed it behind me, I gratefully peeled off my sodden robes, gave myself a scrub with the bag of rice husks provided, and eased myself into the tub. After coming in from the downpour, a bath felt like paradise. It was heated to Japanese temperature, though, meaning much hotter than I was used to in England. After a few minutes, I stood up, and was just about to climb out when the door slid open. I hastily sank back into the water as Hotchopa came in.
“I’ll dry those by the fire for you,” she said, gesturing to the robes. “How’s the bath? A bit lukewarm, perhaps?”
“No, not at all,” I said hurriedly. But she had already taken an armload of sticks from the stack in the corner, crouched by the bath, and started to feed them into the fire.
“I say, that’s quite hot enough, thank you,” I repeated. She ignored me and continued to throw fuel into the fire at an increasingly rapid rate.
“I think I’ll get out now, actually,” I said, squirming as steam began to rise from the surface of the water. “I wouldn’t want to keep Oyuki waiting. Dinner must be ready by now.”
Hotchopa finally raised her head to look at me, grinning from ear to ear—literally. Her mouth had become impossibly wide, and her lips drew back to reveal long, sharp fangs. Horns protruded from her forehead, and her eyes glowed red like live coals.
In a deeper and darker voice, she growled: “Not yet.”
I tried to jump out of the bath, but before I could move a muscle, Hotchopa thrust a finger at me, the nail now a long, sharp talon.
“Katamare!” she said.
My body froze. I could still breathe and move my eyes, but everything below my neck was completely paralyzed. I sat helpless in the bath as the water grew hotter and the steam thickened.
Oyuki burst into the room, kitchen knife in hand. Hotchopa turned her demon face toward her. Oyuki stopped and drew back, her eyes and mouth wide. Then, the horror in her face gave way to steely resolve, and she charged, her knife hand upraised.
Hotchopa thrust a clawed hand at her. “Katamare!”
Instantly, Oyuki stopped in her tracks, the knife still held high in her hand.
“Yamamba,” she said in a voice faint with fear, as comprehension dawned. “Short for yama-uba. Hag of the mountain.”
Hotchopa glowered at her. “I don’t much care for that word,” she said. “Call me witch, crone, ogress…or the inventor of nanban-ni made with real nanban.” She poked me with a nail, as though testing whether I was done. “This will be my first time to sample foreign food. I wonder how you’ll taste?”
“Awful!” I shrieked. “Horrible! Ghastly! I’m English, and everyone knows English food is the worst in the world. Have you ever tried salt pork that’s been sitting in a ship’s hold for a year? That’s been my diet.”
“In that case,” she said, reaching for a small clay pot on the shelf, “we might need a little extra miso.”
“Hotchopa,” Oyuki pleaded, “you were human once, right?”
“That I was.”
“You were a mother? You had children?”
“That I did.”
“Then, please! If you ever had a mother’s heart, think of Simon’s poor mother, on the far side of the world, waiting for him to come home. Could you really live with yourself if she never saw him again because of you?”
“Never saw him again?” Hotchopa snorted. “Some women have all the luck! I only wish my son had been lost at sea, never to be seen again, before he could do what he did to me!”
“What did he do?” I asked.
“You know what this place is?” Hotchopa demanded. “It’s an ubasuteyama.”
I had never heard the word before, but the way she almost spat it out sent a chill through me even as the water scalded me. It clearly held meaning for Oyuki, for her eyes widened in shock.
“Famine in the land,” Hotchopa continued. “Not enough food for all the mewling brats he spawned with that wicked woman he married. So, what does she tell him to do? Take his aging mother, who by then couldn’t even walk on her own, up the mountain…and leave her there to die!”
“How horrible!” Oyuki exclaimed.
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” I quoted, once more praying that Shakespearean eloquence would come to my rescue.
“Well said.” Hotchopa’s glowing eyes scrutinized me. “You say you have a mother who loves you, waiting for you in your home country?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
She leaned over the wooden tub until her face was inches away from mine. “When she’s old and bedridden, do you promise to feed her and care for her? Just as she did for you when you were a helpless little baby?”
“Yes,” I screamed. “Yes! A thousand times yes.”
Hotchopa sighed. “Well, I wouldn’t be so heartless as to keep you from ever seeing her again. I’ll let you go free.”
“Thank you,” I cried. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“On one condition!” Hotchopa continued, raising a clawed finger. “Go down to the village. Your little friend will stay here with me. Find my son and come back with him—or that horrid wife of his, I don’t care which. His name is Goemon, and he’s a mender of paper screens and umbrellas. If you come back with him, he will be my dinner tomorrow night. If you come back without him, it will be you. If you don’t come back…” She gestured toward Oyuki. “It will be her. But one way or another, tomorrow I will feast on human flesh! Do we have a deal?”
I opened my mouth, but no words came out.
Hotchopa seized another stick and prepared to throw it into the fire. “What’s it to be? Do we have a deal?”
I let out a scream of pain, which sounded something like, “Yes!”
Hotchopa raised a hand. “Tokihanatare!”
At once, I could move again. With a speed I never knew I possessed, I jumped out of the bath. Oyuki shut her eyes as Hotchopa seized a bucket and doused me with cold water.
My skin, now bright red, stung all over when the water struck it. Now I had some idea how a boiled lobster must feel, and I vowed then and there never to eat one again.
“For tonight, you’ve been reprieved,” Hotchopa said. “But tomorrow, you will be either my messenger or my main course.” * * * As soon as the sun rose, I headed back down the mountain. I followed the path into the village and among the few shops by the roadside, I soon found one with a paper umbrella hanging from the eaves. I had no idea how to approach Goemon. What could I say? Hello, Goemon! Remember your mother, whom you left in the mountains to starve to death? Well, guess what! She’s become a yamamba, and she sent me to invite you to dinner…
The door slid open. I hastily put my hat on and stood still as a statue. From somewhere within, I heard a babble of children’s voices with their mother shouting over them.
“Oh!” Goemon exclaimed when he saw me. “Good morning, bozu! Out on takuhatsu, are you? Collecting donations for your temple? Just a moment.” He came out of the shop and placed a coin in my palm.
“It’s not much,” he said, “but it’s all I can spare.” He leaned in closer and added in a voice heavy with sorrow, “And please say a prayer for the soul of my mother. May she be reborn in the Pure Land.”
Goemon went back to his shop, leaving me even more at a loss than before. I could never imagine doing to my own mother what Goemon had done to his, and it chilled me to think the practice could be so commonplace that the mountain where these poor old women were taken even had a name. On the other hand, he had clearly carried a terrible burden of guilt ever since. No closer to knowing what to do, I still knew one thing for certain—I couldn’t deliver him or his wife into the claws of the yamamba.
As I walked slowly down the street, deep in thought, the sharp smell of scorched soy sauce reached my nostrils. “Tofu!” a vendor called. “Fried tofu! Inari-zushi!”
I stopped, went over to the shop, and lifted my hat slightly to look over the offerings. I saw blocks of bean curd, some white and some grilled brown, and balls of vinegar-soaked rice wrapped in fried tofu skins.
“I’d like some inari-zushi, please,” I said, struck by sudden inspiration. “As many as you can give me for this.” I handed the vendor the coin I had received from Goemon.
As soon as I had the vinegared rice balls in hand, I headed out of the village and back the way Oyuki and I traveled the previous day, until I came to the torii gate that marked the entrance to the Inari shrine. It was so far from human habitation that I wondered who would go to the trouble of building and maintaining it—but, as I had learned from Oyuki, Shinto shrines appeared anywhere someone witnessed anything that inspired a sense of awe and wonder.
I passed under the torii gate and climbed a flight of rough-hewn, moss-covered stone steps to the shrine, a miniature wooden house atop a stone pedestal. It was barely bigger than a birdhouse, but apparently big enough to be a suitable dwelling place for a god. I unwrapped my package, laid a piece of inari-zushi on the steps, sat down beside it, and waited.
Time passed. I grew so hungry that the urge to eat one of the rice balls myself was overpowering. The restraint that I showed by sitting still and resisting temptation, if I may say so myself, would have done credit to a real monk.
It was late afternoon when I finally heard a rustling by the shrine entrance. I looked and saw a fox under the torii gate, sitting on its haunches and staring at me.
“Here, boy!” I called. “Come here, boy! I’ve got a treat for you!” The fox continued to sit still and look at me through narrowed eyes.
I realized that I might have made a mistaken assumption. “Or are you a girl?” I tried. “Here, girl!” The fox’s eyes narrowed even further.
I made one final attempt. “O honorable messenger of the divine Inari,” I said with a bow, “please deign to accept my humble offering.”
The fox finally stood up, stretched, and climbed the steps to where I sat. I watched as it happily devoured the inari-zushi.
When it had consumed the first piece, I set out the second. As the fox tore into that one, I asked, “Are you the fox we helped out of the trap yesterday? The monk on the path who gave us directions—was that you?”
The fox stopped and looked up at me but made no move that I could take as either a confirmation or denial.
“Well, if it was, thank you,” I said. “And I have just one more favor to ask.” I told it the story of our encounter with the yamamba. “So, you see,” I concluded, “either Goemon gets eaten, or his wife does, or Oyuki does, or I do. I’m trying to arrange things so that no one gets eaten. Will you help me?”
The fox looked up at me, licked its lips, and inclined its head. * * * With the fox trotting along beside me, I went back to the village, and showed it where Goemon lived. The fox slunk around the back of the house and reappeared a few moments later.
“Do you think you can do it?” I asked.
The fox gave a bark of what I hoped was agreement, and we set off up the mountain. When we reached the door of Hotchopa’s hut, I turned toward the fox, but it was gone. In its place stood a man that anyone would have taken for Goemon.
The door slid open to reveal Hotchopa with knife in hand. She was in her old woman’s guise, but as soon as she saw the replica of Goemon, she let out a scream of rage that echoed across the gorge and reverted to her red-eyed yamamba form.
“Goemon!” she shrieked. “How could you do such a thing to your own mother? I gave you life, and you took mine away!” She lunged with the knife, and the fox-as-Goemon stepped back, barely dodging the sharp blade.
Hotchopa leapt down and chased the fox outside, screaming curses and slashing with the knife after each. “I nourished you”—slash—“with my body! And now”—slash—“your body”—slash—“will nourish”—slash—“me!”
With a look of terror on its face, the false Goemon turned tail and ran. And unfortunately, that was true in every sense of the word. A fluffy, red, white-tipped tail peeked out above the waist of his trousers. As soon as Hotchopa saw it, she unleashed another scream of rage, turned, and charged at me, her knife raised high. “Try to fool me, will you?” she shrieked. “You’ll feed me instead!”
The knife bore down on me. My back to the precipice, I had nowhere to run.
A small red shape darted across the path in front of Hotchopa. I barely dodged out of the way as she tripped over the fox, stumbled, and pitched forward—over the edge of the cliff.
Her scream echoed from one side of the ravine to the other as she plummeted down to the rapids. When the echoes died away and I could hear nothing from below but the sound of rushing water, I turned to the fox. “Thank you!” I said, giving it the last piece of inari-zushi.
As it ate, I went back into the house, automatically stepped out of my sandals, and ran through the house calling Oyuki’s name.
“Here!” I heard her muffled voice. “Simon, I’m here!”
I traced the voice to the kitchen, coming from under a huge clay pickle jar. After trying unsuccessfully to lift it, I rocked it back and forth until I had moved it far enough and lifted the square of wooden floor underneath to reveal Oyuki. She took my hand in one of hers, putting the other on the edge of the hole, and with some difficulty, scrambled out.
“The yamamba?” she asked anxiously.
“She’s gone.” As I told her the story, we retrieved our bags, and I began searching from room to room, checking every box, drawer, jar, and loose floorboard I could find.
“Simon, what are you doing?” Oyuki demanded. “Let’s get out of here! If being left in the mountains to starve didn’t finish her off, the fall might not have either.”
“In every story I’ve heard about witches who prey on unsuspecting travelers,” I told her, “they’ve had some kind of treasure in the house.”
“We have the greatest treasure of all,” she said. “Our lives. Let’s not push our luck.”
I had to admit she had a point. We slung our packs over our shoulders and left the house. The fox had finished its treat and gone its way. Oyuki summoned the kitsunebi and started down the descending path, but I paused for a moment at the edge of the cliff and listened. I still heard nothing except the roar of the river.
I set down my pack, pressed my palms together, closed my eyes, and turned my face heavenwards. “May she be reborn in the Pure Land.”
After a moment of silence, I picked up my pack again, and hurried to catch up with Oyuki.
Click here to view contributor bio
Day 37 The Girl With White Hair by Jill Trade
As a little girl, Suzanne’s hair would turn white in the summer sun. She hated her almost translucent mane. She saw it as a sign of weakness compared to her grandmother’s fiery red hair. She saw that as strength and confidence. She lived with her grandmother. She would tell Suzanne stories of adversaries whom she had battled while she brushed and braided Suzanne’s hair each night before bed.
One night when Suzanne was a young woman, she cried as her grandmother told a slightly different story. One where she found the love of her life but he died as they shared their honeymoon night. That night however, left her pregnant with Suzanne’s father. Her grandmother told her that she has never been able to find love again. When she showed her the one photo that remained from her late husband she noticed the black and white image showed her grandmothers hair stark white. Her grandmother said that was the last day her hair was white like Suzanne’s. She refused to tell her how she got her red locks. She told her it wasn’t the right time. Suzanne pressed her for the information. She too wanted the hair her grandmother tossed around. “One day soon, child, you will learn,” her grandmother said.
Now as an adult Suzanne worked as a barmaid in the local saloon. She brought the townsmen drinks and sang songs at the piano. The piano player was a young handsome man named Jasper. His eyes were smitten with Suzanne and her white hair. He watched her night after night sing in the bar. Her corset tightened around her waist putting her milky mounds on display as she worked the room. He wanted to have her as his wife. One night he proposed to her and she gladly accepted. Suzanne was so excited she ran home and told her grandmother all about her first love. Her grandmother told her now she would get her red hair that she always wanted.
Suzanne was too excited about getting married to try and understand her aging, slightly demented grandmother’s ramblings about her hair. After all, if she had something to tell her, she would have said so years ago when Suzanne cried about her white hair.
That weekend the pair were married in the town chapel. After their nuptials, they headed back to Jasper’s house, their new home. Suzanne, as a blushing bride, emerged in a white slip, nervous about her first time in the arms of a man. Jasper laid next to her on the bed in his underwear, visibly ready. Suzanne asked him to be gentle with her. She said she was ready as she lifted her slip up exposing her pure, virgin flesh. Jasper couldn’t contain himself. He began to make love to his beautiful bride.
As the confusion and slight pain from what was happening washed over Suzanne, she felt all her feelings rush to her scalp. All of the sudden her hair was growing longer and longer, twisting quickly out from her head. It suddenly came alive and the left half coiled around Jasper’s neck, choking him as he was on top of her. Then, the right half flung itself down off the side of the bed into the nightstand drawer and wrapped around a pocket knife inside. It pulled out the knife and started stabbing Jasper in the back. His blood ran down and stained her white slip before she could react. Once he collapsed, the hair let go of the knife and his neck. The energy retreated back from her strands, down her body, giving her an intense orgasm. Once she stopped convulsing, she thrust Jasper’s body off of hers and stood up from the bed. She looked down to see her hair now stained fiery red from his blood from root to tip. She ran to the sink and tried to wash it out. It was permanently stained red. This is what her grandmother must have been trying to warn her about.
She cried wishing she could once more see her white, innocent hair but her body yearned for more. Never again, like her grandmother, did Suzanne’s hair grow white, only red. It grew brighter with each conquest.
Click here to view contributor bio
Day 38 Purple Hair by Tim Law
The day had started out the same as always, a carbon copy of a blouse, skirt and jacket kind of day where the blouse just didn’t quite fit and the jacket just seemed to be one size too small. I’d survived though and chalked that up as a victory of sorts. I shielded my face as I watched the sun vanish from the sky. Like the click of my fingers or the snap of a bone breaking suddenly I found that my world was simultaneously blah and oh so cold. It was like the very moment the orb of day had hit the horizon I was attacked by the night, a bitter and chilly impure darkness. It made the world outside feel like it was reflecting my very soul. I could have caught the 666 tram and head straight for the safety of home but it was Friday night. I hoped something good might turn my day around so instead of the tram platform my feet dragged me to the Three Times Charmed. It was a bar downtown, about half an hour walk. It was a hell hole of a place, my Friday night regular hangout. Everyone there knew my personality better than I knew it myself. It was here that I first saw it, out of the corner of my eye, a ghost amongst the black and white, the grey of my world interupted by the surprising addition of color. It was purplish pink, it was odd, and it seemed to me to be completely out of place. It stood out exactly like that sickening candy floss you spy at the very back of the pantry and you stop for a second and wonder when it was that you last did anything fun, least of all go to the carnival. As affronting as this image was to me I noticed nobody else seemed to see it. This blot of bizarre on an otherwise dreary landscape made me feel sick but the drinkers beside me kept drinking. The musicians kept on creating noise, ruining the song they were trying to cover. The bored bar staff just kept on taking the cash and pouring a splash. I finished my scotch and left as swiftly as I could, the girl behind the bar with the off putting hair style raised one pierced eyebrow as she noticed me leaving. I mumbled an excuse but it rang hollow. She knew I'd never turn my back on another drink.
"Hot date?" she laughed. “Please tell me he’s a handsome prince.”
I flicked my thumb over my shoulder to where I had last seen the fairy floss hair but there was nothing left to see, whom ever it was had gone.
"Never mind..." I murmured before taking my leave.
The pitter patter of a downpour met me as I exited the flea pit of a bar and hit the streets. More grey in a dark and depressing world of dreariness. I heard a laugh, a sick and twisted thing; it was just like the sound of clowns after they had shared a hit of ice. My feet drew me toward the noise but somehow it was always just that moment too far away. Stumbling along I wondered why it was that the sound drew me ever closer. I should have been running away, like I always did; running from love, family, life. I stopped, turned and brushed the drizzle from my face before I began to trudge back towards home. As I walked away I was almost sad to hear the laughter fade.
One street blurred into another and I found myself lost. I was confused by the rain and the dark and the deepness of my despair. I thrust out my hands like a blind beggar and touched the rough surface of the building before me. A car rounded the bend behind me and lit up my world in harsh high beam. In that moment it was revealed to me the name I required, Dan’s Convenience, the store before which I currently stood. As my sullen eyes opened in joyous surprise I caught sight of a vision that pained me and created new fear. It was Purple Hair! Somehow the face was there, coming around the corner, coming straight for me. I couldn't get away. I lashed out, desperately attempting to create some distance, some safe space between me and that complete and utter strangeness. As my clenched fists shattered the glass I felt all the pain of shallow cuts and slashes. It felt as though little slithers of agony were sliding into me to sit just below my skin. As the shop window busted open I was attacked again. This time my ears were bombarded by the nagging continual piercing squeal of alarms. I limped away, a leper scorned, a worm in search of a hole to hide in. I sought out a safe haven where I could lick my wounds and my soul clean, clear and pure again. The shadows of the alleyway became my sweet companions again, a place to hide, to flee under cover. More alarming, sharp sounds filled the air. It was the wail of sirens. The hunt was on and I was to be the prey. But what fate befitted the one with the purple hair? Did not that brute better deserve the attentions and intentions of the authorities? Those dressed in a uniformity that allowed them the role of author of their own fate and mine, but not that of the head that was just so carnival. I fled, drops of my life following after, a trail of crumbs for Officers Hansel and that of his or her partner. Looking back down the alley I gasped at the splatters of color that I was leaving behind me. Purple and pink puddle all of them round and ugly; a thousand faces all staring back, mocking me. I released the sound of anguish that was bottled up, the primal cry that had been building steadily inside me. I was lost, confused and truly afraid. In every window, every mirror, every puddle and surface of reflection I witnessed that purple head of hair. It was before me, behind me, beside me. I ran and ran and ran until I could run no more. That was when I finally faced the truth I had been running from the whole time. I could not escape that haunting shadow. The monster was with me every anguish filled, faulting step. There could only be one logical reason, one sure fire bet.
I would never escape that insane Purple Hair. I couldn’t, for Purple Hair was me.
Click here to view contributor bio
Day 39 Raikou and the Shi-ten Doji by Ed Ahern
A long time ago the capital of Japan was Kyoto, the city of blossoms. The Mikado and his court lived in Kyoto, a place of beautiful shrines and temples. But the capital was troubled with many thieves and murderers who snuck through the city gates at night.
Even worse were the evil imps, called onis, with horns, and long fangs, and tiger skin loin cloths. These onis would prowl the Kyoto streets by night, grab people by their hair, drag them through the Rajo-mon gate into the mountains, rip the meat from their bones, and eat it. The young women they did not eat they kept as slaves.
The bravest captain of the Mikado’s city guard was Yorimitsu of the Minamoto family, called most often Raikou. And the bravest of his guardsmen was Watanabé Tsuna. It was Tsuna that Raikou ordered to guard the Rajo-mon gate at night.
Tsuna took his post at the red pillar of the Rajo-mon gate and watched. The night was filled with heavy rain and wind, and the lacings on Tsuna’s helmet, armor and sandals were soon soaked through. But wet or not his carefully honed sword could slice through a drifting hair.
Tsuna kept his watch as the great bronze bell of the temple on the hills tolled the hours. A single massive stroke rang the hour of the rat- midnight. Two hours later the hour of the bull sounded, and an hour later the hour of the tiger.
The driving rain had softened, and as Tsuna became less uncomfortable he also became more sleepy. He shook and pinched himself, and even pulled his little knife from the wooden scabbard of his short sword and pricked his leg repeatedly, but no use. He leaned against the red pillar and fell asleep.
An oni had been squatting on the cross piece on top of the gate waiting for this chance. He slid down the pillar like a monkey, grabbed Tsuna’s helmet with his talons and began to drag him through the gate.
But Tsuna was awake in an instant. He grabbed the hairy wrist of the imp with his left hand, and with his right hand drew his sword and, swinging it over his head, sliced off the demon’s arm. The oni howled with pain, jumped back on top of the gate and disappeared into the clouds.
Tsuna waited, clutching the severed arm in one hand and his sword in the other until dawn broke, but all was quiet. The sun began to brighten and dry the pagodas and temples and gardens of Kyoto, and the nine circles of flowered hills as well.
When Raikou saw the arm he praised Tsuna highly and rewarded him with a silken sash. But then Raikou said, ”Kiotsukeyo- “Be careful. For an oni’s arm can still rejoin its owner within a week of being cut off. Lock it up, and watch it night and day.”
So Tsuna went to the stone cutters who make images of Buddha and mortars for pounding rice and coffers for burying money. He bought a heavy stone strong box with a grooved lid that slid out only after touching a secret spring. He had the strong box carried to his bed chamber and put the oni’s arm in it. Watanabé Tsuna locked his house gate and all his doors, and kept watch day and night, never letting anyone see the box who was not known to him.
Six days passed quietly, and Tsuna began to think that the arm was already his trophy. He ordered that the box be taken from his bed chamber to his day room. He took off his armor and put on his court robes, and twisted a fringe of rice straw as a token of victory.
Late that evening there was a feeble knock at the gate outside Tsuna’s room. “Who’s there?” he called out.
The squeaky voice of his old aunt replied. “Just me. I want to see my nephew and praise him for his bravery in cutting off the oni’s arm.”
Tsuna let her in, carefully locking the door behind her, and helped the old woman into the room. She knelt on the tatami mats, close to the strong box, and began to praise Tsuna for his skill. He felt very proud.
His beloved aunt began to beg Tsuna to see the arm. He said no at first, but finally gave in because of his affection for her, and slid back the heavy stone lid.
“That’s my arm!” yelled the old woman, who, until this moment had her right arm covered, waving only her left arm when she talked. She grabbed the arm and, changing into an oni, leaped up to the ceiling and jumped through the smoke hole in the roof. Tsuna ran out of the house to shoot at the oni with an arrow, but she was already in the clouds, grinning horribly back at him.
When Raikou heard of this he deduced that the demons were hiding in the mountains of Oyé in the province of Tango, and decided to go after them. But just as he had made up his mind he fell sick, and each day grew weaker and paler.
When the onis heard of his sickness they sent an imp called Mitsumé Kozoto to torment Raikou. This imp had a double snouted hog nose, three hideous blood veined blue eyes and a wide mouth full of tusks.
The imp snuck into Raikou’s bed chamber and began to leer horribly at him, sticking out his warted tongue and pulling down the blood veined lids of his three eyes with his hairy fingers. Raikou lay in the bed, seemingly too weak to move. The imp crept closer and closer until Raikou, with what little was left of his strength, pulled his sword out from under the bed sheets and sliced into Mitsumé Kozo’s double snout. The imp howled and ran away, leaving a trail of blood drops.
Tsuna and the other guards congratulated Raikou on his blow and then immediately set out to track down and destroy the imp. They followed the blood drops a long way, until they came to a cave in the mountains. Inside the cave they could see a spider, six feet tall, with legs as long as fishing rods and as big around as daikon radishes. The spider had two great yellow eyes like camp fires and a gaping sword slash across its snout.
Tsuna knew that if they tried to fight too close to the spider they were in danger from its claws. So he tore a thick sapling out of the ground and holding it like a lance ran at the spider, pinning it in the sapling’s roots. The other guardsmen tied up its long thick legs and then stabbed it to death.
By the time they returned to Kyoto, Raikou had recovered from his illness. From a gold brocade bag he took out the commission he had received from the Mikado.
“I command you, Raiko, to chastise the onis.”
Raikou, Tsuna and two other trusted guardsmen disguised themselves as Komuso, wandering priests of the mountains. They put large straw hats, shaped like bowls over their helmets, and covered their armor with cheap peasants’ clothing. Then, after worshiping at the shrines, they marched off into the pathless mountains of Tango.
These mountains were desolate, for no human went into them except for an occasional woodcutter or charcoal-burner. There were no bridges over the rivers and many steep crevasses to cross. But Raikou and the three guardsmen didn’t hesitate, felling trees to cross the streams and making vine ropes to lower themselves into the chasms. Finally, high up in the clouds, they came to a dense grove of trees. They found a pretty girl washing blood-spotted clothing in a stream.
“Why are you here?” they asked.
“Ah,” she sighed, “you must go at once. Demons live here, onis that eat the meat of man. They will eat yours as well. Look!” she said, pointing to a pile of white bones. “Go down the mountain faster than you came up.” And then the girl burst into tears.
Raikou was touched by her sadness and beauty. “How is it that you are living among these cannibal onis?” he asked.
She blushed and said sadly, “They eat men and old women, but keep the young women to wait on them.”
Raikou patted his chest where he kept the brocaded bag with the imperial order.“Please show us the way up the cliff to the den, so that we may avenge your shame and cruel treatment, as well as the deaths of the loyal subjects of the Mikado.”
They had climbed two hundred feet when the path suddenly turned and they were in front of the castle entrance, a doorway built between massive boulders and covered with vines and mosses. When they glanced backward, far, far below and away they could see the red pagodas, white temple gables and castle towers of Kyoto. Without fear, they walked up to the onis guarding the gate and demanded to see the chief oni, the Shi-ten doji. The guards leered and admitted them, thinking that a future meal had just walked up to them.
When they had filed through the doorway they discovered that the oni’s castle was really an immense cave, with a banquet hall able to seat hundreds. The floor of the hall was covered with sea-green mats of rice straw, and the walls with hangings of fine silk. On the tatami mats were tables and silk cushions, arm rests and drinking cups, everything needed for a feast.
At the end of the hall, on a raised dais, seated on cushions stuffed with swans’ down, leaning on a solid gold arm rest, was the Shi-ten doji. He was a demon of stern and horrible appearance, with a bright red body that was round and fat like a grown-up baby. Two short horns poked through his soot black hair. Standing around the Shi-ten doji were a dozen young women, as pretty as any Raikou had seen in Kyoto. Their faces did not completely conceal the misery they felt but could not show. And other girls and young women stood next to each of the onis in the hall. These onis were seated or laying full length on cushions waiting for their lunch and drinking sake from men’s skulls.
Lunch was brought in- human flesh still on its bones. The onis all began to eat, gnawing meat from bone and making a noise like the pounding of a rice mill.
Raikou knew that he needed to lower their suspicions, and volunteered to dance “The Kyoto Dance” for which he was famous. He stepped into the center of the hall with a fan in one hand, and danced so gracefully and easily that the onis screamed with delight and clapped. Even the girls and women forgot their troubles and smiled at the beauty of the dance.
When the dance was over and Raikou had received the congratulations of the Shi-ten doji, he took out a bottle of sake from the folds of his robe. “This,” he said, “is the best wine in Sakai. Please drink it with my compliments.”
The Shi-ten doji accepted the wine and drank heavily. He addressed the other onis in the hall. “This is the best liquor I ever tasted. You all must also drink.” And each of the onis took a full drink, also swearing that it was the best sake they had ever tasted.
But Raikou only smiled to himself. For the best herbalist in Kyoto had drugged the wine with a powerful sleeping potion. In very few minutes the Shi-ten doji and all his onis were asleep, snoring like rolling thunder in the mountains.
Raikou and his guardsmen whispered to the girls and young women to leave the banquet hall. Then, drawing their short swords, they stepped from oni to oni, silently slitting their throats. When they had killed all of the other oni, they gathered in front of the Shi-ten doji. Raikou turned toward Kyoto, reverenced the Mikado, and drew his long sword. He swung with all possible strength, and sliced completely through the Shi-ten doji’s neck, severing its head.
The bloody head flew up into the air, gnashing its teeth and rolling its yellow eyes. The horns on its head sprouted to an impossible length. Its jaws began opening and snapping shut. The head whirled around the hall several times and then flew at Raikou’s head, biting through the straw hat and into the steel helmet. But its strength was spent, and the head dropped to the floor with a thud.
The guardsmen examined Raikou’s head, but he was unhurt- the helmet had protected him. The four men gathered and buried the bones of the victims, setting up a stone marker on the spot. Then they divided the onis’ treasure equally, set their castle on fire, and assembled the girls and young women for their return march to Kyoto.
When the girls were restored to their families many desolate homes were made joyful, and many mourning garments were put into storage. The Mikado honored Raikou by making him a Kugé, a court noble. And this story began to be told.
Click here to view contributor bio
Day 40 The Pilgrim's Tale by Andi Brooks
A lone pilgrim paused by Katagami-ike Pond to rest and admire the view. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, allowing the cool mountain breeze to ease the ache from his limbs.
“Is it not one of the most beautiful sights in all of the earthy world?” a gentle voice inquired at his shoulder.
Roused from his contemplation, the pilgrim found a young maiden by his side.
“If it were vouchsafed me to stand upon this spot for a thousand years,” she continued with a far-off look, “it would not be time enough to appreciate all of the wonders which nature has wrought here. Each time I cast my gaze across this pond and the mountains beyond, I am rewarded with a hitherto unseen marvel to fill my soul with joy.”
Turning to the pilgrim, she inclined her head and apologized for her intrusion.
“It is rare that I have the pleasure of sharing this most heavenly of scenes with a fellow traveler. Visitors to this spot are infrequent. Those who do find their way here seem reluctant to pause long. Perhaps they fear falling under its enchantment and finding, like myself, that they are unable to leave.”
The pilgrim nodded and looked thoughtfully out across the pond as a cormorant, swooping to pluck a fish from the water, scattered a pair of courting mallards.
“It would indeed be a great tragedy to live out one’s life without at least once having taken in the beauty of this scene,” he replied at length. “It calls to mind the lines by Ōtomo no Tabito.”
“The Palace of Yoshino, Thanks to the mountains, Appears nobility itself; And thanks to the water, Appears purity itself.”
The maiden raised her voice to complete the verse.
“As long as heaven and earth, It will last eternal; Through ten thousand ages It will remain unchanged, This palace of delights.”
They stood wrapped in their own thoughts until the maiden inquired, “Where are you bound?”
“Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine. And you?”
“I journey to a far distant place, but the path is as yet unknown to me. I repose upon these shores until the mists clear. Will you not tarry awhile, sir? Perhaps you can be of assistance in divining the course I should take?”
“Forgive me, my lady, for I fear that pleasure is denied me. I must continue upon my pilgrimage.”
“And after you complete your devotions, where then will your travels take you?” “Back to my hometown in Yamashiro Province.”
“If perchance you should be inclined to take rest upon these shores during your homeward journey, we shall meet again for I must linger by these waters until I know not when.”
“It would surely be a delight to share this vista with you once more, my lady. How may l seek you out upon my return? Do you lodge nearby?”
“You shall find me awaiting your return beneath this willow tree by which we stand.”
Surprised by her reply, the pilgrim asked, “By what means will you know when I am to pass by this way again?”
“It matters not if it be but a single day, a year, or a whole lifetime, I shall be here upon your return.”
Accepting the maiden’s wisdom, the pilgrim bid her farewell and continued upon his journey. Thereafter, though his pilgrimage was sincere, he could not completely banish her from his mind. When he slept, she came to his dreams whispering, “I await your return. Do not forsake me.”
Upon the conclusion of his devotions at the Grand Shrine, the pilgrim found himself hurrying back to Katagami-ike Pond. The maiden now filled all of his waking and sleeping thoughts, though why it should be so he could not perceive. When he stood once again beneath the willow tree his heart sank. Despite her promise, the maiden was nowhere to be seen. He would have chided himself for being so foolish as to have actually expected to have found her there awaiting his return had he not, despite her apparent absence, had the most uncanny intimation that she was nearby. Determined to wait until she revealed herself, he settled down in the shade of the tree and, wearied from his journey, drifted off to sleep. It was as he lay there that the maiden finally appeared.
“That you would return and in so doing set me free to continue upon my journey I had no doubt. Pray accept this token of my gratitude.”
Kneeling by his side, she placed a string of glass prayer beads in his hand. Closing his fingers around it, she whispered, “Open your eyes and though it may grieve you, you will find me by your side.”
With those words, he awoke to see the full moon looking down upon him. Unsure as to whether the visitation had been a dream or reality, he opened his tightly clenched fist to find the prayer beads resting there. He lifted his hand to look closer at the miraculous keepsake, but it resisted. Upon investigation, he discovered that the beads dangled down between his fingers and into the earth. His gentle tugging was countered by the soil’s refusal to yield its treasure. Placing the beads upon the ground, he carefully cleared the earth away around them until, to his horror, he found that they were entwined around the delicate fingers of a woman’s hand. Steeling himself, he returned to the grim task, slowly exposing the corpse of the maiden herself. Her skin had the pallor of marble in the pale moonlight. The signs of violence perpetrated upon her frame were dreadful to behold, yet her face was unmarked and bore upon it an expression of peace and contentment.
Consumed by grief, the pilgrim arranged a funeral ceremony for the maiden and had a stone raised in her memory. While in prayer at her graveside, he was granted a vision of her in the smoke of his offering of incense. The beguiling image was as ethereal as the beauty of the maiden herself. Erelong it was carried heavenwards upon the breeze. He stayed by the grave, his face bathed in tears, until a monk gently recalled him to the land of the living.
Click here to view contributor bio
Day 41 What's Behind The Door by Mark Tulin
It was a very humid and warm evening. My mother slept in the master bedroom. And dad was on the sofa under the air-conditioner because it was the coolest part of the house.
I had a premonition that something terrible would happen to my parents that night. I didn’t know how it would occur, but I feared that one of them would die.
At approximately 2.a.m, I woke from a man screaming. It took a few seconds to realize that it was my father. Then, instinctively, I ran to the living room, thinking he had a heart attack.
Instead, he was in boxer shorts, and his upper body pressed against the door, desperately trying to keep it closed.
"Help!" he shouted.
I rushed to the door and pushed.
I wasn’t sure if it was one man or two behind the door. But it was a force greater than ours.
My mother ran into the room. “What’s going on? Then, when she saw intruders trying to get into the house, she stood with her hand to her mouth, petrified.
“Call 911,” my father said. “Don’t just stand there!”
My mother almost stumbled to the landline phone on the wall of our kitchen. And when she picked up the receiver, there was no dial tone.
Dad kept threatening the intruders, saying he had a gun and the police would arrive soon, hoping they’d get scared and flee. But there was no response on the other side, not even the sound of breathing.
We heard sirens in the distance but were disappointed when the sirens grew fainter. We kept holding the men back, hoping that someone or something would save us.
"Try the phone again, Lillian! " Dad yelled.
This time the phone worked, and she connected to the police station.
“Please,” my mother cried. “Get here fast. Someone's breaking into our house….NO, we don't know who it is. NO, we're holding the door closed. Oh, yes, sorry. 800 Walnut Lane, the corner house.“
We were sliding backward on our heels, beginning to lose a grip.
"Keep pushing!” my father yelled. “We have to hold him.”
They kicked the door open and overwhelmed us.
My father fell backward onto the floor and held his chest. We thought we were doomed, that two burly guys with knives would rush us, and our lives would end. Then when we looked up, there was nobody there, just an empty hallway and our cat, Pudgy, innocently meowing.
When the police arrived, we told them the story.
“Maybe it was a dream,” one cop said.
“Yeah,” said the other cop. “People dream a lot on hot nights like this.”
Once the police took the information, they promised to drive around the neighborhood and search for the intruders.
"I wouldn't worry," one cop said. "Criminals rarely return to the scene of the crime."
I looked at my dad, still on the floor. "Are you alright?"
“I had a little trouble breathing, but I think I'm okay now."
My mother was fanning herself with her hands.
After that night, we made changes. Dad bought the most expensive security system for the house, two sets of deadbolt locks for each door, and a spotlight for the driveway. Yet, despite these changes, we still couldn’t shake our nightmares.
Click here to view contributor bio
Day 42 Reflections on 9/11 by Linda Gould
Hello. There’s no music today or welcome. It’s September 11th, the 20th anniversary of the day 19 men hijacked civilian airplanes, ramming two into hi-rise towers full of people in New York, one into the US Pentagon, which was also full of people, and one into a field when the civilians on the plane revolted and stopped them from reaching their ultimate destination, most likely the US White House or the US Congress, both full of people at that time.
It was one of those events where everyone old enough to remember it, also remembers where they were, what they were doing when they learned about it. It’s one of those events that just kept getting more and more horrible the longer we tuned into the TV programs, but no one could it turn off, either. First, seeing those two little planes hitting those giant buildings and the resulting dust, the fire. Then, the horrible, desperate actions of terrified, anguished people. Then the attack on the Pentagon. Then, the horrible, slow-motion fall of the towers. None of us saw what was happening inside when those towers fell. We didn’t have to. We all knew.
I thought for a long time what to do on the podcast to mark this event. The podcast is about the supernatural—and plenty of stories are about death. So, at first, I thought I would just read the names of some of the people who died that day and hope that their souls are at peace. But, that somehow seemed trite. Other places will do that, places that have some meaning to the people whose names would be read. I wrote some short vignettes imagining the lives of those who died shortly before the attack. But, who am I to inject my own creativity into a day that belongs to them?
So, I do what I hear every year on September 11th. It’s become almost as a mantra for newscasters and pundits: They say, “Every September 11th since the terrorist attack, America reflects on the disaster that befell us.” So, this year, I reflect.
Have you ever been to the 9/11 memorial? It’s two holes that represent the footprints of the two buildings that used to exist there and the lost lives, but also the holes formed in people’s hearts and lives as a result of the attack. If you have never visited the memorial, it is uniquely eerie. All around it, New York City, with all of its life and energy bustles, yet, there, at the memorial, stillness envelopes the area like a transparent dome. You see the buildings, trees, lights and everything that constitutes a city surrounding those two black rectangles that drain emptiness into hidden depths, yet that part of the city is distant, removed, overlooked , because, at the memorial, all that exists is the loss of so much existence. Something that lingers in the air is palpable, but not with our five senses. If I tried to explain what I felt, sure, I could describe the cold stone that my hand rested on or the sharp edges of the names engraved in that stone that my fingers ran over. I could tell you about the scent of flowers left by family members, friends and colleagues, and maybe even just tourists who want to pay their respect, that waft through the air. If you listen closely, you can hear the trickle of water that drops into the memorial’s caverns, a reminder that, just as every drop of water forms an integral part of the oceans, so too, does each life form an integral part of our world, that all of us exist, in life and death, as part of the whole, that there are parts we are aware of, but as the water trickles into the memorial’s subterranean level, there are parts that are still mysterious. But those things are not what lingers in the atmosphere around the 9/11 memorial. There is a force there that hushes voices, that causes people to pause, that elicits awe and love and hope. It is a force that reminds us of the horrors, the acts of violence, but doesn’t allow us to remain there. Instead, that palpable thing in the air at the memorial, calms us and forces us to face violence and anger and hate with the things in life that bring us together. Strangers cry together there. Family members gather there from points around the world to remember their loved ones. Cynics honor people who died innocently and those who sacrificed their own safety to help others. No one goes to the 9/11 memorial and comes away the same person.
I reflect on what has happened to my country since 9/11. The polarization of everything. But, on that day, the hijackers didn’t care about politics. Death didn’t check political party or nationality. Nearly 3000 people died that day. The poor and rich, the educated and uneducated, the anonymous grunt and the powerbroker, Jews, catholics, baptists, Muslim’s buddhists, sikhs agnostics, atheists and everything in between. The terrorists selected the Twin Towers as symbols of the worst of people, like economic domination and exploitation, and there is no denying that those towers certainly represented that. But, didn’t they also represent the best of humanity? The ability of so many people of varying backgrounds and ethnicities working together to maintain a functioning society? There were plenty of businesses and organizations in those towers that fought to improve the lives of people in NYC and around the world, especially in some of the poorest and most oppressive places in the world. I wish more time and thought were devoted, not to the terrorists and their primitive beliefs, but to the everyday work that the people who died in those towers represented and strived to achieve. I don’t want it sugarcoated. But, reading the names of the deceased is only part of honoring them. Working together, fighting politicization, and remembering that we are only on this earth for a short time, we don’t know when we will pass, so do we want our legacy to be meanness and violence toward our countrymen who we disagree with or toward people in strange lands simply because we don’t know them? It IS possible to be kind and respectful AND to have a good, happy life that treats everyone with respect.
I can’t help but to think of the randomness of 9/11. I read about a woman who was in New York for one day, for a meeting at the towers. Any other day, and she would be alive today. Other people missed trains or buses or planes and, because they were later than they normally would be, they survived. Of emergency responders, a group that just happened to be in a stairwell when the towers collapsed. They survived when thousands of others didn’t. There are countless stories like this. As I reflect, I can’t help but to think that we spend so much time organizing and putting things in calendars, and planning to control our selves and our lives. But, there are so many variables that are out of our control. Every single person who died in the 9/11 attacks, did so through no fault of their own. Whether in New York City, the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pennsylvania, they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. For me, that is terrifying, and I suspect, for many people it is terrifying. It is, in my opinion, why so many people hold religious beliefs. It’s why philosophers through history have debated the issues of religion and fate and free will. It’s why we write stories. We can control the monsters in our stories, account for even their unaccountable actions. We can forget, while writing or reading, about the things out there we can’t control. And so, by facing, even if in stories, the unknown and death, we can continue living.
Finally, while 9/11 is the subject of today’s reflection, every country has its own version, and by some standards, 9/11 isn’t even the most atrocious. Atrocities, whether natural or human-induced, occur in every country, in every community. Monsters do exist among us. Their motives are not understood, and in the case of natural disasters, like the tsunami that struck Japan 10 years ago, just so completely out of our control. But we are human. We have the capacity to face the seemingly unfaceable. We have courage and heroism within us, especially if heroism is not defined as being warrior like, but rather finding the inner strength to stand up for those who are being persecuted or bullied or ignored.
I read somewhere that the hijackers on one of the flights told the passengers to be quiet.
Sometimes, like while standing at the 9/11 memorial, being quiet shows respect. But sometimes, it’s the noise we make that can reveal the humanity within us.