by Stewart C Baker
After we entombed my father, he transformed into a giant bird of the purest white and burst forth from the earth all holy and clean.
My mother and her co-wives, my sisters, my cousins—all followed as he soared, majestic and terrible and filled with beauty, away to the East and the sea.
I alone of the women in that place stood watching. The rest ran through plain and brush, pushing past the sharp bamboo which must have cut their feet like swords; they ran through wave and spray, unmindful of the cold wetness which wrapped their robes about them like black ocean weeds. As they ran, they sang, their high-pitched, nasal voices rising in rhythmic bursts of ritual lament to the kami my father had become.
I alone sang no songs. I alone remembered.
When I was very young, I used to beg my father to take me hunting. Though even then he was stern, he would always relent, the sun glinting through his jet black hair as he grinned our secret grin and set me in the bough of the sky-reaching black oak at the forest’s edge.
I loved the burst of activity as courtiers swarmed around readying horses and bows, the shouts ringing out in the crispness of the early spring air. But I loved more the way my father sat, perfectly still, astride his own horse. His own bow held loosely in his lap, he would chant the ritual blessing slowly, and with god-like calm.
I used to sit in the oak for hours and listen to the distant thrumming of bowstrings, reveling in the idea that all things were connected. In the idea that my father connected them.
When he slayed the warlords of the Kumaso tribe, my father received a new name. Yamato Takeru, they called him as they died. Yamato Brave.
When he returned, he had changed.
He no longer hunted, no longer held his bow. Instead, he practiced swordsmanship. He stood waist-deep in the Kino river, drawing and slicing and drawing and thrusting over and over and over again with a sword we learned he had received from his aunt, the high priestess at Ise.
He did not come to my mother or her co-wives a single time before leaving again at the Emperor’s orders to pacify the peoples of the East.
A part of him, I thought, a part of my past, was dead and gone forever. My mother cried for days, and I was filled with unease at a world unstrung.
We heard tales of his further exploits, this Yamato Takeru who had been my father. He smashed savages, argued with kami and gods, and struck them all down to the dead land of Yomi if they did not submit.
My mother and her co-wives received reports daily, tracking his progress with a mix of hope and trepidation.
From the boughs of the oak where I sat, alone once again, I could find no trace of former times.
“You will marry the Emperor’s first grandson, and raise my chance of ruling.”
Those were my father’s first words to me when he returned.
“My cousin.” I stated it flat and unflinching, ignoring my mother’s gasp.
“Yes,” my father said. “The throne’s heir.”
“And if I will not?”
My father laughed, a sound sudden and sharp, like an arrow striking wood. “You would raise words at me, girl? I have killed kami, and burned to the ground whole tribes of stinking rebels. I have subjugated the rivers, and the seas, and bent the messengers of gods to serve my own will. If you refuse, I have other daughters. Any of them can easily become my eldest.”
I set my teeth and raised my chin. “As you say, my lord father.” Keeping my words to myself.
But that night, I went once more to the forest.
I did not stop, as I usually did, at the foot of the oak, but walked further than I ever had before, into the untouched wilderness of the deep forest. I walked until the canopy closed overhead, then opened again to reveal the eternal patterns of the heavenly river. The air was rich with the smell of humus and rot.
I came to a mist-wreathed spring, and there I stopped, amidst the dim shapes of pines and rocks and the silent glow of distant stars reflected on its surface.
A white boar as big as a warhorse rose from the waters, its eyes unfocused and its movements calm and measured. Its form shifted as it walked, lopsided bulges of life forming on its body and sluicing away into the air with each step.
A kami. Its snout close enough that I could feel its breath on my skin, even and deep, it spoke.
woman-child, it said. what do you seek
The words echoed in my skull with the sound and thunder of trees falling. I did not reply. I did not dare.
woman-child do you seek justice
woman-child do you seek vengeance
do you seek . . . It paused, jaws opening slightly. death
“My father died already. What I seek is–“
your father’s death? it will come again if that is what you seek
My breath sat like a stone in my stomach; my throat burned like fire.
“Beast-god,” I rasped, “I order you stop! I, I wanted … “
leave this place woman-child, the kami said, or what you say you do not seek will come to you
Then it turned back towards the spring and, as it did so, slowly melted upwards into mist.
I walked through the forest for long enough to count a lifetime. I lived off mushrooms and berries, drinking from pellucid streams whose water chilled my throat and aching belly.
When at last I found my way back to the Yamato I knew, I was told that a half-moon had passed. My mother ran to me, her hair in disarray and her robes disordered, her eyes puffy and red.
“Thank the white plain of heaven,” she half-sobbed, collapsing against me. “I thought we had lost you too.”
So it was that I learned my father had been stricken dead at mount Ibuki by a massive white kami in the shape of a boar, while I wandered lost in the forest.
As my father’s kami vanishes towards the sea, and the wailing of my mother and her co-wives fades from hearing, I step from the shadow of my father’s new-built tomb, face his empty grave, and speak. Raising words one final time.
“I will remember you as you were,” I say, “and not as you became. Daily will I erase your divinity, ever chronicling your early, mortal life until your godly wrath is naught but legend.
“I will tell all who listen of order and calm.”
Then I turn. I do not look back at the fields and the cliffs and the mountains and the oceans of my homeland. I turn, and face the sun, and I leave that barren place in search of fertile ground.
This story first appeared in Penumbra eZine in the July 2013 issue, which was themed around Japanese mythology. You can purchase a copy at the Penumbra website.
If you’d like to sign up to receive updates to this blog by e-mail, you can check the little floating “Follow” box on the right-hand side, near the bottom of the screen. If you’re more of an RSS person, there’s also a link to the RSS in the side bar.