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Prayer of the Oni 3: The Courtyard

They came to the estate in what she supposed was within the Hour of the Rooster when it was dark but not yet midnight and the streets were quieting and great Heian-kyo was coming to rest with lanterns dimmed and doors closed, all voices behind wood and only the drunk and the dead out in the streets. And too there was the girl and Takamasa, the false merchant’s daughter and the false priest together. Or the woman Kaede of Iwami and the priest Shirakawabo. The girl had never had a name before and she did not hate Kaede, but she was also unaccustomed to lying, for such things were unneeded outside of the city, where all was a dance of life and death without speech or humanity. Words were dangerous, she thought. And she thought of her father on his mat and of her grandfather’s blade. Her sandals clattered on the roads. She had the knife still in the vast inner pocket of her outer robe.

Before they crossed the road they had to wait for a procession to follow from outside the city, a noblewoman’s palanquin and a convoy of guards and other carriages with it, grunting oxen and the clatter of bells as the guards shouted for people to get clear though the street was already empty. It had become suddenly cold, a wind sweeping in with the clouds overhead, and yet while usually with only shirt and trousers she feared any kind of chill, now in the robes of a city-dweller she seemed to barely feel it. Her long sleeves and the skirt of her outer robe were heavy and comfortable like nothing she had ever known.

Takamasa, one hand in his robe and his staff in the other and a large leather bag with a fake scroll to replace the one he intended to steal so he had said slung over his shoulder, led the way, walking slightly ahead. As they passed the wisteria lane the quiet of the Hashimoto estate was again noticeable. The shadows around it seemed emboldened almost by this quiet, and things lurked there in the corners where the glow of the lanterns didn’t quite reach and they were things too much to do more than glance at. Faces with feelings that did not mean anything to mortal eyes, with forms of superficial humanity that went no further than the structure and shape of things. Ancestral ghosts; mischievous spirits that played games human beings could never understand. The city was dark, she thought, darker than the country, for here it was all compressed, and the bloodstains had to be thick and cloying in their closeness.

They arrived at the main gate of the Hashimoto household and found that it was open for them. The gates were only slightly ajar, enough for two bodies to squeeze through. There was no one there to greet them. The door simply waited there as an unspoken invitation. Takamasa scratched his head. “There’s no one here.” he said. The girl said nothing. he looked around. “I guess these noble types have their ways.” He sighed. “Look, Basket. You know you might have to spend some…uh, time with this man, don’t you?” She nodded. “You know what that means? I mean, you look old enough to…” He sighed again, playing with his beads. “If anything unusual occurs, like I don’t know, something you’re not all that happy with, you can do what you must. Forget about the job, in that case.” She cocked her head at him. He grunted. “I mean…ah, never mind. But I don’t want to have a girl getting killed, or what have you, on my conscience. So if it starts getting strange you get out of there. Okay?” She nodded. “I mean, use that knife of yours, even.”


He chuckled. “Of course, I noticed. Smart of you.” He patted her on the shoulder. “Come on.” He went first and she after him, breathing in and squeezing through the gate. She eased herself through into the courtyard of the estate. A gust of wind blew in from the west suddenly and with a creak and then a slam the gate had shut itself behind them. The girl’s heart pounded. “Ah, come on.” Takamasa said. “That’s a pain.” But they could not dwell on this for ahead was the courtyard and it was beautiful. Here the unclouded moon shone down with its soft light, illuminating the courtyard with eerie glow, and the yard was long and wide, occupied on this side by a neatly-kept garden area and then suddenly giving way to a lake, a carpet of serene water black as ink in the moonlight. The bank of the lake was dressed in reeds and the water carried thick lotuses upon its surface, and upon the three islands which crossed the lake, two smaller and one longer and narrower in the centre, were several more purple wisteria trees. The bridges connecting the islands were red with gold decorations upon their sides, and beyond them and the lake was another stretch of garden, plain in décor but for the stage set up in its centre, and then the main building, the sleeping chamber, a roofed aisle around it and beyond the aisle the rain shutters, all closed and dark but for two in the centre which were raised, forming an entryway.

Above was a long plank roof, plain and wide, and either side were more buildings, connected to the centre by covered corridors of dark wood that was strangely shimmering as if it were wet. Two more roofed but open corridors extended out from the other two buildings on the left and right of the sleeping chamber, one over the water and the other nestled on the bank, sandy ground beneath it, and both held open pavilions with seats laid out but from here visibly as empty as everywhere else. Lanterns hung from the rooftop eaves and were mounted along the bank of the lake, and eight of them set in stone were arranged in the yard where the girl and Takamasa stood, all furnished with carved buddhas upon the sides. To the west of them was a shabby hut with a sliding door closed over, the only thing visible that was not quire brilliant – but within the overall scene it served only to exaggerate the grandness of everything else.

She could only stare. At her side Takamasa chuckled. “Now, think about it. This is just some out-of-fashion noble’s house. Imagine the likes of our heavenly sovereign’s garden! Wonder what he’s got locked away in there?” The girl did not reply because she could not wonder at it because this already was enough. “The lanterns are lit, anyway.” he said. “That means someone must be home. Let’s make good guests of ourselves and go see.” But for the flames of the lanterns crackling and the creaking of the wood of the bridges and of the house in the wind there was silence. She saw no shadows painted on the paper behind the latticed walls which might have suggested a presence, and all in the yard was so perfectly ordered that it seemed to her that nobody could ever have lived here. And yet Takamasa was right and the lanterns being lit meant that it was so and yet she had this feeling that it was not and could not shake it. She followed after him, passing the stone buddha lanterns and then coming to the first bridge. Beyond the main house and the left and right buildings were more rooftops and with them suggestions of other rooms and other places.

Takamasa stepped onto the bridge. He was no longer banging his staff as he walked but held it almost as a weapon, moving with care, seeming to be trying to avoid the jangling of the metal loops as he went. The girl tried to peer into the doors of the central building. She saw nothing but darkness. They reached the first island. The wisteria trees were above branches curled over them protectively or amorously, flowering petals tickling her shoulders, and Takamasa was on the cusp of the second bridge now, leaning forward and studying the rest of the yard ahead of him. He crossed and looked back and then forward again. The house was still and silent.

As they reached the second island a noise came from somewhere within the wooden walls, a sound like something had taken a step and the wood had creaked with the weight of it and within the relative quiet it rang out like the drawing of a blade within a temple hall. They both paused. The girl found her knife in her pocket. The noise didn’t come again. She heard Takamasa swallow. “Let’s keep on going.” he said. So they did and they crossed the central island and ducked under more trees and then crossed another bridge after it. The final bridge was before them now waiting at the edge of the third island, arcing horizontally over the water and then to the right, coming to the other side of the yard – just in front of the sleeping chamber – at an angle. She came after him onto the island and as she did her sandal touched something hard in the grass. She stopped and looked down. It was a piece of wood that was something discarded by someone else who was not them. The girl bent down to pick it up and saw up close that it was a pendant tied to string, an image of a scowling face carved into oak. It had frantic eyes and a furious mouth and looking at it made her heart pound. Quickly she put it back down.

“Hey.” Takamasa called too loudly. She flinched. He was waiting for her on the bank of the lake, leant on the bridge with his staff over his shoulder. “What are you doing? The goods are inside, not out here.”

She glanced down at the face in the grass. “Sorry.” Another noise came from within the house, a series of soft, frantic thuds as if someone was running. Takamasa faced it with his staff gripped as an unlikely weapon. Nothing came out. She joined him in the yard and he took a second to notice her at his shoulder. “I know where it is.” he said, more to himself than to her. “The Shotaku scroll is in the prayer hall. Let’s just go in, see who’s about. If no one is about, maybe we can just take the scroll and leave.” He proceeded past the stage and up to the roofed aisle before the sleeping chamber, one foot on the steps leading to the raised rain shutters. With his staff on the ground he leant forward and peered in. There was no light beyond. She looking past him could make out the paper screens of an antechamber decorated with vague patterns. The grass behind her crunched as if stepped on. She turned but nothing was there – the courtyard remained as before, beautiful and frozen. She looked at the gate they had slipped through that now was firmly shut and turned back to Takamasa, who was easing himself onto the covered aisle, wincing as it groaned beneath him. Their eyes met. He tried to give her a smile and mouthed ‘don’t worry’ to her. The girl wanted to speak, to stop him, as he approached the threshold of the sleeping chamber, as he stood poised to disappear into darkness. She glanced to the right, to the pavilion on the sand and to its empty benches and shadowed interior, where she felt that something was waiting, watching the both of them. A dog, that same dog perhaps that she had heard in the daytime, howled to itself from one of the other estates. The sound seemed muffled as if it couldn’t quite penetrate the Hashimoto walls.

Takamasa took one more step. “Who?” a voice called, and it was not the voice from earlier in the day but a woman’s voice old and tired and so ragged that it barely seemed to be spoken but rather croaked out. She had never heard a voice so worn. It had come from within the sleeping chamber, from within the antechamber obscured by rolled-down blinds. “Who is it?”

Takamasa took a long time to reply. “My name is Shirakawabo. I am a travelling monk. The lord of the estate bid me to come here tonight.”

“Who?” the old woman said. “The lady is very tired. She is resting. Please, leave us be.” The girl had approached Takamasa now and saw in the dark the antechamber blinds and that in the antechamber too there were no lanterns lit. It was impossible to work out where the old woman was situated within. “Is the lord of the estate present?” Takamasa asked.

“Oh.” the old woman said. “No, no. Lord Hashimoto is away at court.”

Takamasa tried his chuckle. “With permission, that surely cannot be so. I spoke to him earlier.”

“He has been away since the fifth month.” the old woman said. “Please, the lady must sleep. Leave us.”

“I was called here on business.” Takamasa was playing with his beads.

“Leave us be.” the old woman said again. He said nothing but only waited, the wood creaking and the fire in the lanterns popping and snapping as if it were bone being chewed upon by the fangs of a great beast. She could hear now a faintness from the sleeping chamber, the low and feeble sound of someone breathing. It was not a healthy sound; it reminded her of Benkei the butcher from her old village, when he had become sickened and had spat black from his mouth and shat out all his guts one night and died there on his mat. They waited together now. Takamasa stepped back from the roofed aisle and with care descended the steps. He turned to her and gestured for them to move to one side, out of view and earshot of the sleeping chamber. There he brought his face close to hers. She could see his stubble and his rotting gum and see as well the desperation on his face. “That gentlewoman doesn’t sound as if she has much in her. She might be confused. I’m going to go and see if I can find Lord Hashimoto inside. And – and if it is only her, and the lady she is minding, then I might be able to take the scroll by myself. And we can get out of this place.” A lifetime passed between them as Takamasa fought with something deeply karmically entwined with his very being. His eyes were almost honest now and the honest thing about them was their naked fear. “I don’t like it, Basket. This house.”


He took her hand. “Look. This could be dangerous. I asked for your help, but…I wasn’t expecting anything like this. If you wait here for me I should be back soon. If I find the scroll then you can still have a share of the profit. I like you. But if I don’t come back, or you hear anything strange, you ought to get out. Climb the wall if you can.” He paused there with the weight of everything upon him bending his shoulders and crushing together his face. “Do you think you can?” After a second she nodded. “Good.” His grip was slightly too hard but tender. He grinned at her. “Take care, Kaede of Iwami.” Takamasa then let go of her and stood back up, gently placing his noisy metal staff on the dirt of the yard and drawing instead from the depths of his outer robe a short blade, not a full sword but larger than her simple weapon, wooden-handled and plain. He held it in the manner of one experienced in such things. She saw the sweat on his face and the intensity of his expression. He ascended onto the roofed aisle once more and without a sound, with a motion so smooth it was silent, he slipped into the sleeping chamber. And she was alone.

Without him and his bravado the courtyard at once had become larger and darker, the water hiding a thousand corpses and the shadows cast by the two corridors and their pavilions obscuring demons and ghosts. The whine of the wind was an evil voice nagging at her, calling her to it. She moved away from the sleeping chamber and the old gentlewoman’s sickly breathing, returning to the lake, which she was sure in the daylight would be splendid to see but now however was only another mystery, another dark place within which things lurked and watched. She saw again in the grass on the closest island that strange pendant which had been dropped there. Glancing back at the sleeping chamber, seeing the rain shutters and beyond them the blinds pulled down over the antechamber, she returned to the island and crossed the bridge, her sandals clacking against the wood.

She bent down and picked the pendant up once more. She held it between two fingers and then turned it over. One side held that monstrous face and the other was marked with a character she knew, that made the hairs on her neck stand up suddenly. It was one of several she could read, for she also knew the character for ‘Buddha’, and this one her father had told her what it meant over and over, had scared her with it as a child, and it was the character that signified the word ‘oni’. At once she turned again, looking at the sleeping chamber where the old gentlewoman was. She saw nothing but that. It came to her clearly now that something very wrong had happened here.

Her free hand went under her robes to the buddha around her neck and she held onto it just as tightly as Takamasa had held onto her and she stood again and faced the sleeping chamber. With her hand on her knife she approached the roofed aisle. The gentlewoman’s breathing was still there, a wheezing rhythm. She took a step towards the latticed doors. The gentlewoman coughed. “Who is it? Who is there now?”

The girl said nothing. “Leave us.” the gentlewoman said. “The lady is very tired.” The girl did not leave. She stepped further so that now she was within the sleeping chamber proper, a wide rectangular room with the smaller rectangle of the antechamber in the middle sealed off by the lowered blinds. On the floorboards were cushions for sitting upon, and various portable screens which had been moved out of the way occupied the corners. To the east and west were more shutters, which led back out onto the roofed aisle and to other corridors, to other parts of the house. The girl waited there, unsure of what to do next. She did not know which way Takamasa had gone. In front of her was the antechamber and in the western part of that was the sleeping-space, a small square room attached to it with plaster walls instead of blinds which was where she assumed the lord himself would usually sleep.

As she had noticed before it was from the sleeping-space, not the rest of the antechamber, that the breathing of the old gentlewoman came. The girl did not know what this meant. She thought she might speak; but it occurred to her another thing she did not know was how to address even the servant of a noble family. She thought of how Takamasa had spoken, so differently than himself, soft and with language that was so gentle it couldn’t have cut paper. She steeled herself and stood up. “Excuse me.” she began. The words filled the chamber, echoing in the gloom. At once the gentlewoman seemed to have stopped breathing. “I wish to ask you, ah, your ladyship-“

A noise then rose from the sleeping-space, a rattling groan that built up into a roar that was enraged and bestial, so loud and sharp that her sentence was swallowed whole by it, this noise that was not of man or woman or anything earthly. Something moved beyond the plaster walls and the floorboards creaked and the blinds rattled and it came through them, a hand thin and ragged and white, and before the girl could escape it had hold of her throat and its clawed fingers dug into her skin tight. She couldn’t breathe and the fingers were as needles piercing her flesh and now from the other side of the blinds came that horrible groaning once more. “You!” the thing behind the blinds cried, its voice guttural. “Girl! A girl for his lordship! Another one!” She pulled, trying with all her might to move from the antechamber and back outside. The hand did not let go but came with her, and she saw the arm come through the gap in the blinds too and it was pale and emaciated and it kept going even as she managed to pull herself back onto the roofed aisle. It was not an arm but it was a worm, long and segmented and wriggling through the air, and it still held onto her and still she could not breathe. She had staggered back into the courtyard now, past the rain shutters and the roofed aisle and down the steps, and a pathetic gurgling rose from around her and she realised it was herself trying to breathe.

Still the hand and the arm that was too long gripped her. She clawed at it. “Another girl!” the voice of the thing in the antechamber spat. It sobbed and moaned and howled. “No more girls, my dear husband! No more!” The girl gasped. She felt light and the pain of the claws in her neck had become suddenly distant. It all was nonsense, an arm longer than long and a cursed house and a man who was not, Takamasa and the gold buddha and her brief thoughts of the future – all nonsense, dreamt up by her after too much wine, and soon she would wake in her shack by the river and gaze upon distant Heian-kyo as it came to life in the morning air. The voice of the thing was laughing now or she thought it was. Her vision drifted, the house and the demon arm only abstractions. She was no longer struggling. Her legs gave way beneath her and she fell – the hand had released her, finally, although she didn’t have the strength to care. The ground came to her hard. She was asleep or unconscious, dreaming of gold. A voice spoke to her. “Welcome.” it said, and it was the voice of the man who had spoken at the wisteria tree lane earlier. The lord of the estate. “It is our pleasure to host you, honoured oni.”

4: The Tunnels

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