New story: “Bloodstained Letters Found in a Roadside Shrine on the Outskirts of Kyoto”

It’s story day! (Calloo, callay)

My epistolary story “Bloodstained Letters Found in a Roadside Shrine on the Outskirts of Kyoto” is out now in Syntax & Salt‘s fall issue.

This one is about tanuki, foxes, and other creatures which inhabit the world of bakemono or “changing beasts,” a specific kind of yokai who–as you might expect from their name–can transform.

The story’s a little bloody, in case the title doesn’t make that obvious. Thanks to my first readers at Codex, and Taka Okubo, for their feedback on earlier versions of the story!

If you’d like to learn more about yokai and bakemono, yokai.com is far and away the most comprehensive English-language resource available. Go check them out!

Reprint: Proceedings from the First and Only Sixteenth Annual One-Woman Symposium on Time Manipulation

My weird and somewhat surreal flash fiction piece, “Proceedings from the First and Only Sixteenth Annual One-Woman Symposium on Time Manipulation,” is up today as a reprint at Flash Fiction Online!

This story first appeared late last year in Time Travel Tales, which you can buy on Amazon as an e-book or in print. The anthology has a bunch of excellent stories by other authors as well as mine, so if you like time travel, go check that out as well!

And—speaking of anthologies—a reminder that my historical fantasy story “Kuriko” is out now in Guardbridge Books’s Tales of the Sunrise Lands, and available on Amazon as well as through the Guardbridge Books website.

Out soon! My story “Kuriko” is in Guardbridge Books’ Tales from the Sunrise Lands anthology

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll have a story in Guardbridge Books’ upcoming collection of short stories set in Japan called “Tales from the Sunrise Lands.” You can pre-order a copy at the link there.

My story, “Kuriko,” is a roughly 7500 word story about a living mechanical doll (からくり人形) trying to survive late 1600s Japan, and features down-on-their-luck samurai, drunken lords, and other unsavoury 時代小説 style characters. It was inspired mostly by a visit to the Ohno Karakuri museum in Kanazawa, Japan back when I lived there for half a year in 2005. Well, that and binge-reading Yoshikawa Eiji and Shiba Ryotaro.

I first wrote this story waaaay back in 2009(?) or 2010 for a writing contest on Scribophile , making it one of my earlier stories in terms of when I wrote it. When the (mangled, disjointed, subpar) first draft didn’t place in that contest, I reworked it and expanded it (too much) and submitted it to Writers of the Future, where it was my first entry and earned me my only semi-finalist. (In fact, it was the only story I ever submitted that earned me more than an honorable mention, up until my story “Images across a Shattered Sea” won first place on my last qualifying entry in late 2015.)

After I got my semi-finalist critique from former judge K.D. Wentworth, I lopped about 1/3 of the story off the front and revised it some more, then sent it out on submission, where it’s come close at a few places (including earning me a non-published contest win at Spark: A Creative Anthology).

I’m pleased to have finally sold it to a great publisher like Guardbridge!

Interestingly, I actually submitted this story more than 2 years ago (June 11th, 2015—I checked!) to Guardbridge’s great Myriad Lands anthology. Since it was over the length the editor wanted and also Japanese-themed and he had too many of those, the editor said he’d like to bump it to a planned anthology of stories by Japanese and non-Japanese authors set in Japan. (The anthology has changed its focus a little and doesn’t include many Japanese authors, apparently due to a lack of response when the editor tried to solicit submissions–a bit disappointing.) Fast forward to October of 2016, and I had received an official acceptance, and in December I signed the contract.

So it’s been quite a wait for those of us behind the scenes, but it’ll be out soon. Other authors include Douglas Smith, Alison Akiko McBain, and Richard Parks.

It’s 9 GBP to pre-order, and shipping in the UK is reasonable. Go give it a gander if you like Japanese stuff.

Link to buy: Tales of the Sunrise Lands

April/May updates: An award shortlist, a contest win, and a few new publications

I have been very bad about updating this blog lately. Gah! So, here’s April/May.

April

I had a new piece of flash fiction out in Daily Science Fiction on April 4th titled “Heisenball.” The story explores the many world theorem and takes a look at what we blame ourselves and others for, and what we do when we learn how else things might have turned out. Go give it a read! “Heisenball” by Stewart C Baker

Other exciting April news was the announcement that Futures story “Love and Relativity” was selected as one of seven finalists in my Naturethe 2016-2017 Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Writing, in such luminous company as Alastair Reynolds, Aliette de Bodard, David D. Levine, and Alex Shvartsman. (And that’s just in the short story category. Neal Stephenson? Cixin Liu? AAAAAAAH!)

You can read “Love and Relativity” at Nature Futures, or listen to it in audio form at Audible, courtesy of its being reprinted in Flash Fiction Online.

Also in April, I sold a Little Mermaid retelling to an anthology of fairy tales by Fantasia Divinity. Check it out on Amazon in ebook and paperback.

And the gloriously-titled story I co-wrote with Matt Dovey, “How I Became Coruscating Queen of All the Realms, Pierced the Obsidian Night, Destroyed a Legendary Sword, and Saved My Heart’s True Love,” was released in audio form at Podcastle. If you like absurd, D&D-gone-wrong style misadventures, Listen/read online“>give it a listen! (As a bonus, you can also view the art my wife Jane drew for the story in its original publication in No Shit from Alliteration Ink. Art makes everything better! If you’d like to see her other three illustrations, you’ll have to buy the anthology.)

May

In early May, my original story “The Monsters Your Mother Still Asks About” was published in Great Jones Street. This one is a darkly humorous urban fantasy romance, complete with a ridiculous vampire, an overbearing mother who may or may not be acquainted with brooms, and–just maybe–a chance at love or something like it.

Great Jones Street also published two reprints from me: “Fugue in a Minor Key,” originally from Galaxy’s Edge, and “Images Across a Shattered Sea,” my Writers of the Future winner. “Fugue in a Minor Key” is no longer available online elsewhere, so I’m especially glad to get that one some more eyeballs.

And last, but certainly not least, just a few days ago I learned that my story “At the Edge of a Human Path” took first prize in the annual Friends of the Merril contest. The story is a retelling of a Medieval English tale, “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,” only set in Yamato Japan. Features fox-women, besotted lords, and devious backstabbery.

Friends of the Merril is a pay-to-enter contest, which I usually avoid, but I make an exception for this one because they use the proceeds to support a library collection of speculative fiction. Yay libraries! (And, obviously, I am very glad that I made that exception, this year!)

Phew. That seems like a lot of stuff. What will June hold? I sold two stories to Remixt, but am not sure when that comes out, and have a few other forthcoming releases, as well.

(Also, if you’re into haiku, you should go read the June issue of The Heron’s Nest. I’m the web editor, and also get to sometimes write the essay for the poem that gets the most editorial votes. This time I was privileged enough to be the one writing about an incredible haiku from Anthony Itopa Obaro of Nigeria.)

Unwritten Fragment of Basho’s Second Death Poem (“Last Words” Series)

Not much in the way of commentary this week, since (1) I think the genesis of this one should be fairly obvious and (2) do you really want to see me talk about haiku for 500 words?

Unwritten Fragment of Basho’s Second Death Poem, Pulled Half-Finished from His Mind and Brought Forward in Time to the Twenty-Third Century at the Moment of His Last Breath

by Stewart C Baker

No more journeying
I rest—

I said no commentary, but I guess you really have to know what Basho’s last recorded poem was for this to make sense: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matsuo_Bash%C5%8D#Last_years

On a semi-related note, I’m pondering writing a short story (and/or a piece of interactive fiction!) about a sort of magicianly warrior group who uses spoken haiku sort of like spells to create literal changes in the fabric of reality.

It sounds weird, and probably would be, but it also makes an odd kind of sense. Haiku’s all about juxtaposition. And the idea of a haiku “cutting” to create worlds is sort-of almost canonical! As I explored in a previous story.

On an unrelated note, don’t forget to guess which title in Writers of the Future is mine! You could win a signed copy of this year’s anthology.

Song of a Whale, Translated into Human Speech by Dr Hananakajima’s Machine at the Moment of its Harpooning (“Last Words” series)

Since August, I’ve been trying out Tempest Bradford’s challenge of limiting my pleasure reading to things not written by cisgendered straight white males.

My reading habits skew female in any case, and I have favourite authors like Jorge Luis Borges and Ted Chiang, so this isn’t much of a stretch for me. But it has led to me reading some excellent novels I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise, like Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (which I wish I had read long ago because it is astounding).

Anyway, while I might post more about that experience at a later date, I mention it today because this week’s “Last Words” post is inspired by Somtow Sucharitkul/S.P. Somtow‘s Starship and Haiku. Which I’m surprised I never found earlier because come on. Haiku! I write those.

Song of a Whale, Translated into Human Speech by Dr Hananakajima’s Machine at the Moment of Its Harpooning

by Stewart C Baker

Painsharping… Swimdeep…

As for Starship and Haiku, it was an interesting read, if a bit dated. Never mind that, in the book, WWIII destroyed most of humanity in the early 2000s. I felt like parts of it ran afoul of the Asian as Alien trope (oddly, considering its author is Thai) in ways that probably would not be considered okay today and in ways I couldn’t quite figure out was intentional subversion or something to be taken at face value.

Allusions to Mishima—not to mention the haiku, which included fun riffs on stories from Basho biographies—on suggest that Somtow is pretty well-read in Japanese culture, anyway, which was nice. But there were times when the text seemed to unironically describe Japanese people as “inscrutable” and that’s kind of…? And the Japanese are literally descended from whales (spoiler) which means that characters in the novel (Japanese and otherwise) are constantly talking about how they are literally alien compared to everyone else on Earth. Which uh…

Anyway. It has whales. And whalesong.

And it made me feel strange when I finished reading, which is a good indication that it succeeded as a SF novel on some level even if I found the racial aspects of it problematic and its depiction of Japanese culture a bit too early-Shōwa to ring true in describing a Japan set in 2023.

Benefit of living in the future, I guess.

Bonus!

For a more recent story about a Japanese girl and dolphins (close enough to whales, right?), check out Henry Lien’s excellent “Bilingual”, which is free to read on his website.

Another Bonus!

Although this is a huge tone mismatch with this story. The name Hananakajima has been shamelessly lifted from the wonderfully bizarre Sexy Commando Gaiden: Sugoi yo!! Masaru-san, the first episode of which the bravest among you can watch in regrettably low quality here.

Contest Win! “Kuriko” at Spark: A Creative Anthology

Pleased to announce that “Kuriko,” probably my most favourite story of all I’ve written, placed second in the recent “Monsters and Marvels” contest for Spark: A Creative Anthology. I’m not 100% clear whether the win includes publication, but will follow up on that when I am.

The story—essentially a “historical science fantasy” of sorts—tells the tale of a sentient mechanical doll in late 1800s Japan. There’s intrigue, danger, samurai and daimyo, and any number of other exciting and interesting things.

I wrote this one way way back in late 2009 as a contest entry on Scribophile, a social community for authors I used to be fairly active in (where it didn’t come close to placing because it didn’t really fit the theme), then polished it up quite a deal for Writers of the Future back in mid-2011 (where it got a semi-finalist—still my highest score there), before sending it around to ALL THE PLACES, finally doing a bit more revision earlier this year that involved significant trimming (to the tune of 2900 words chopped out), and submitted it to the Spark contest a month or so ago.

Hurrah!

I’ve published my short story “The Abbot’s Garden,” about a Zen abbot in post-war Japan, interdimensional travel, and rock gardens (among other things), to Amazon Kindle Direct. You can purchase a copy on your regional Amazon or read on below for a free preview. (Warning: cliffhanger!)


The Abbot’s Garden (preview)

by Stewart C Baker

Showa 26 (1951), Sunday February 11th

Ryouji believes he can contact beings from another reality by careful realignment of the monastery’s rock garden. Some of the blame for this is mine, and I have started this journal to track my efforts as abbot to cure him of his delusion.

He sits reading most nights in his rented room, the soft hum of the electric light just audible in my study across the courtyard. He never seems to mind the evening chill; he simply reads, trying to forget his wife’s death with immersion in the unreal. This obsession worries me—I am forever trying to change him, to show him a better way.

Occasionally I join him and he tells me fantastical stories from other lands, translating in bursts of Japanese as his thoughts overflow. I insert futile koan into the gaps between his words, hoping to awaken him to the true nature of things with strangely adapted Zen riddles:

“Has a fictional character Buddha-nature?”

Or: “Whenever he was asked about literature, Master Gutei simply tore a page out of a book.”

Or: “Ummon said, ‘Literature and ignorance correspond to one another. The whole earth is literature. What is your true self?'”

None of them ever work. He simply pauses a moment longer and continues speaking—no doubt he does not even properly hear my interjections, so busy as he is inside his head.

Tonight I had finally decided to try a different track. If Ryouji so loved books, I thought, I would supply books which instructed, books which could direct his powerful mind to better purposes. When I went to his rented room near the monastery’s southern gate, I took with me an armful of treatises on gardening.

If Ryouji saw them when I entered, he made no comment. He just looked up from the volume spread open on his desk, blinked a few times, and started to read aloud as though I had been there all along.

The story he told was of an apparently infinite library, and it was stranger even than his usual fare. Many of the books in this library did not even have words, holding simply the same three letters over and over for hundreds of pages. People lived there, spent their entire lives walking through it and reading and reading and reading. Some thought the books revealed some truth about the universe; others believed they were meaningless.

The story was blessedly short, and when he finished I cleared my throat. “Ryouji,” I said, “this tale perfectly describes your own situation.”

“Abbot Ichiou, am I to understand you actually listen to my readings? All this time I thought you came only to convert me.” A slight smile worked its way across his face to show he meant no disrespect by the comment, but I waved my hand in dismissal.

“It is my calling to listen,” I reminded him, “as well as instruct. It is you who do not attend. These stories you immerse yourself in—they are like the library you describe. They are illusions, Ryouji, endless illusions without meaning.

“But their endlessness, too, is illusory—the library only appears infinite. All illusion can be broken if you step outside it. You need only realise this to enter into the garden of life, the path to truth, and see clearly the attachments which threaten you.”

He looked at the closed book on his lap, but did not speak. I brushed off the front of my robe and stood, placing the books I had brought with me on his desk.

“I have brought you some books on gardening,” I said. “It is my fervent hope they will teach you to work with the real in a way these endless strings of words cannot. Good evening.”

But as I opened the door to his room, he spoke. “Gardening . . . of course! Your insight is amazing, Abbot.”

I stopped, one hand on the door-frame.

“The books are illusion,” Ryouji said. “I know that. It is what they tell us of reality that makes them useful. But the garden . . . “

I sat, cautiously optimistic. I had never expected him to even understand my gesture, let alone agree with it.

“In this same book,” he continued, “is the story of a garden, an infinite labyrinth. The narrator of the story believes the garden’s existence proves reality to be . . . “

He flipped through the pages in his lap.

“To be ‘an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.’ Each of these ‘times’—each newly split-off reality—is caused by the decisions we make in our daily life. More importantly, these different realities can interact.”

“Ryouji,” I said, my head spinning.

“The garden in the story is actually just a book,” he continued, “although its long-dead author has misled generations of scholars by writing of an endless labyrinth he wished to produce. The labyrinth and the book—the garden—are one and the same, but so are the book and reality, the labyrinth and reality.”

“Ryouji!”

He waved me to silence. “The details of the story are not important. What is important, Abbot, is the connection with gardens. Gardens are essentially natural landscapes, which means they must exist in many realities. But they are also man-made, and like our actions must be different in each.

“It is like Elfland, a magical kingdom from an old book indeed. There are places where its boundaries overlap with our own, and sometimes the boundaries weaken, and . . . “

I put a hand to my forehead. More stories? More insane, impossible realities?

“Ryouji, please!”

“Sorry, Abbot. Anyway, what matters is that we can create just such a weakened boundary between our reality and others by carefully manipulating our garden.”

He thumped the gardening treatises I had brought him to emphasize his point. “We can make contact with versions of ourselves who live in other ‘dimensions of time’!”

I had not seen him so animated in all his six years at the monastery since his wife passed away, but my heart grew heavy. My attempt to help had done little more than cloud his vision further. His own private tragedy still ruled his emotions, still held his spirit in check.

I could not speak. Without another word, I stood and returned to my room and this diary.


Showa 26 (1951), Monday February 12th

Ryouji has spent the day in the garden, bothering the monks with surprisingly deft questions about the books I loaned him. I believe the only reason they have not thrown him out is that he has made no secret of his strange belief about communicating with other realities, and they do not know what to make of it.

Some take it as a sort of practical koan, wondering if Ryouji has finally given up his scholar’s trappings. They ask if he has come to me, if he has read something in some sutra that rang true, and when I admit to giving him the gardening books, they ask if he has become enlightened. If he is going to join our brotherhood instead of merely living in our midst.

I dare not tell them he is sincere.

Others are not as well-intentioned. Brother Haku, who adheres to folk superstitions with the same fervour Ryouji feels for his books, approached me in the dining hall this evening.

“Abbot Ichiou,” he said. “There is something that troubles me, and I have come to you for guidance. I have heard that you gave Ryouji some treatises on gardening, despite the fact that they are meant to be secret.”

Inwardly, I groaned. Haku had never liked Ryouji, and my association with the man he saw as an outsider had turned him from a good monk into a bitter, jealous soul. Another of my failings, is poor brother Haku.

“It is true,” I said. “I hope they—”

“Is it true, then, Abbot, that he using them to summon demon spirits in the rock garden?”

I allowed myself to laugh. “There you are mistaken, Brother Haku. Ryouji will surely do no such thing.”

“No? And yet I am sure I have heard—”

“As to what you have heard, Brother Haku, I cannot say.”

He flushed, but pressed on: “And yet, does Ryouji not read strange books in place of the sutras? Does he not spend his hours jotting furious notes, learning foreign tongues, or doing other empty things?

“His condition has worsened since he arrived at the monastery all those years ago. His soul has only become more inured in the fatal chain of samsara. If not even righteous words can change his spirit . . . “

I sighed. “It is true that Ryouji is troubled. His path to truth will be much longer than yours or mine. That is why I gave him the books.”

Haku’s eyes narrowed. “There is some sense to that, I suppose.”

“Indeed. And no matter how strange he is, the idea that he has taken up gardening to summon demons is ridiculous.”

“All the same, Abbot, I am worried.”

“I will talk to Ryouji,” I said. “I am sure there is some misunderstanding.”

Haku looked sideways at me as though he wanted to say more, then shook his head, bowed and left the hall.


Showa 26, Sunday February 18th

Ryouji has spent the entire week constructing a new garden in the empty yard behind the bath-house. His designs are shockingly unorthodox, as expected of one who lacks adequate training. Indeed, at times he seems to go out of his way to flaunt the books I gave him. He places boulders in abhorrent arrangements which have strange effects on the eye, making the garden seem twenty times larger than it is. His tree-pruning is barbarous, the designs that result impossible to describe and uncomfortable to look upon.

The koi pond feeds into a small stream which does not cross the garden north to south, as it should, nor even east to west. Instead it makes a circle, feeding in turn back into the pond, where some number of fish glitter and splash. I tried to count them only once, but they seemed to split off and join into each other in ways I could not quite believe were caused just by ripples in the water. It made me dizzy, and when I looked away I saw quite clearly reflected in the pond a double of myself, eyes wide in horror. I jumped back, shouting in surprise, but the space beside me was empty. When I told Ryouji what I had seen he only smiled and refused to explain.

Since then I have avoided the place and its illusions. The other monks too are disturbed by the garden’s oddness, but since no demons have sprung from behind boulders they have begun to think that Ryouji was not being serious. They are content for now to watch and wait, and hope he will give it up and return to his books.

I hope it as well, but there is something in the air, something like the pressure that arrives before a storm. I remember the tales of the first patriarchs’ awakening and I shudder to think what it might mean.


Showa 26, Tuesday February 20th

Today, Ryouji walked into the dining hall when he was already there.

It was the noon-time meal, and the hall was filled with a peaceable quiet. But at the second Ryouji’s entrance, the silence turned to ice. This new Ryouji strolled to the table where he usually sits—was already sitting. He pointed to the seated version of himself, let out a yell of triumph, and started to jabber incomprehensible questions.

The hall exploded into riotous sound, the monks all shouting and pointing and trying to get away from these two impossible men. The first Ryouji slowly stood, brushing off his simple russet-coloured robe. He took two steps towards the newcomer, held out a single piece of paper, then flickered out of sight like a cloud of steam rising from a hot spring in winter.


Want to read the rest? Head on over to your regional Amazon, where you can pick up the ebook for only $2.99.

One of the poetic forms I’ve been toying with lately is the chōka. This long-form Japanese poetic structure is one of the earliest forms of waka, and tanka derives from it. Which means it’s a very distant ancestor of haiku, that’s for sure!

Similarly to haiku and tanka, the chōka goes in alternating five- and seven-on lines, and–again like the tanka—is capped with a pair of seven-on lines (an on being a “sound unit”—normally translated to “syllable” but not quite the same). The main difference is that chōka can be of any length you wish. Historically the form was often used as a panegyric–public songs performed publicly in praise of the various Japanese kings, queens, and emperors.

M. Kei has a very informative post on the form if you’re interested in learning more: http://kujakupoet.blogspot.com/2006/05/origins-of-japanese-poetry-choka.html

This poem of mine, tentatively titled “River-cut,” started with an image of the lush hills of coastal Oregon rising from the foggy seas. I think it sounds more like the start of an epic than a complete poem in its own right, but here’s the opening so far:

River-cut

by Stewart C Baker

once was a time
when green hills rose tree-skirted
from the mist
cast up by waves and spellcraft
all along the coast
their slopes glinting, sunlit,
until all rolling
they merged with the waves below
identical
in all but their stillness
and the stags which danced
across their untouched meadows
skittish at man-smell
echoing earthbound the hawks
who wheeled and dove
to pick clams from the water
and drop them again
to shatter into fragments
on rock-dagger shoals
overrun with human sounds
as fresh-hewn ships
sleek and eager as terns
spilled from the rivers’ frothing


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Reprint: Raising Words

Raising Words

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

“No, I–“

woman-child do you seek vengeance

“No, I–“

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.


 


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