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Prayer of the Oni 4: The Tunnels

In her dreams she saw that face from the wooden pendant that was the face of the oni grinning at her with its demonic countenance set in a snarl. It made no sound but watched her in the dark. Its teeth were fangs and its eyes were crimson and it would not let her escape. Teeth scraped her neck with such intimacy as she had never known and its hands clawed at her and cut her off from this world, choking everything that could be choked, and she could somehow still see its eyes which burned like coals like the smouldering of a fire blazing in the deep winter amidst the snows with the sound of the hiss of hot boiling water against human skin.

It claimed her with fingers from head to toe and the pressure upon her throat was the worst and best and it was about to tear, her windpipe, blood bubbling up to her mouth and past her teeth, and then with it finally came that last definite crack and she was sent tumbling down the path to her next life which might be better or worse than this one

but definitely worse, for a rotten creature like you

She was awake. Breathing again, her neck hurting. The wood was rotten and stank of mould and the lantern above was only a naked flame chased by flies. There was no monster’s face looking at her but only the warped material of the walls and the moist ground which she had her hands resting upon. She was sat down and leant against something. From where she sat she could see the door, a heavy wooden edifice with iron hinges, and it was slightly open. She wanted to move but could not. Her legs ached as well where she had fallen and more than that there felt to be a disconnect between her brain and her body. Things drifted in and out of her mind. She moved her dry lips and tried and failed to make a word. Time had passed; it was much later now than the Hour of the Rooster, perhaps closer to the middle of the night. She could hear nothing from above save for dripping water far-off somewhere beyond the door.

Takamasa’s aged and dirty face set in a leer came to her as well, and then his leaning into her and telling her to take care and calling her Kaede of Iwami. It was more of a name than Basket Girl – a real name, with real meaning perhaps. She did not know what the characters that made it might mean but her hope was that it would be something good. Her lips moved, forming the sound of it. “Kaede.” she said. The ajar door then creaked, swinging slowly open, and at the same time as the wind rolled in from outside it blew out the lantern and filled the room with blackness. But there as a presence was the figure who had opened the door who was a shape like a man in several layers of robes, tall and thin, his head almost scraping the ceiling. The smell of fragrant sandalwood drifted in with him and it was as comfortable as a mountainside temple hiding one from the storm. The girl was not afraid. He stood there and eased his way into the room, stooped. He was before her now and unlike the wretched thing in the sleeping-space he breathed like he was alive and stood as a living man would, and nothing of him suggested evil or strangeness except for that she still could not fully see him even as he now stood so close that his robes were almost touching her. There was something else beneath the sandalwood but she could not recognise it.

“Are you well?” he asked, in the voice of the man from the gate who had told them to come back at night. His gentle tone soothed the girl’s heart further. “I am sorry.” he said. “It was not proper of me to allow my vulgar wife to greet you. There are many duties required of the master of a household. I was otherwise occupied.”

“Lord Hashimoto?” she managed. The man did not reply. He was still so near and yet so vague, a living shadow. “You are welcome in my home, but there are other residents here who do not wish it so. I must ask you to stay in here until I am ready for you. Please, do not think me disrespectful. I know who you are, honoured oni.”

“Oni?” she asked. He reached out with a hand. The sleeve of his outmost robe brushed against her. His long, thin fingers were touching her face, exploring her, his warm skin against her cheeks, marching up to her forehead and then running themselves through her hair. “Your body is delightful.” he said, whispering into her ear. “Perfect.” He stood up. “I will speak to you later, my guest.” No words came from her as he moved back to the door, almost seeming to glide, his robes trailing on the stone. He held the door. “Goodbye.” She had half-opened her mouth to speak when he pulled the door shut. There was the sound of the bolt being pulled to from the side.

The girl remained sat down for a few more seconds, alone and surrounded by blackness. Then she moved. Her robes were intact and her neck was not in agony and without the smell of the sandalwood nearby her head managed to clear itself of fog and soon she knew enough to know that this was a bad situation and that she needed to escape from it. At once with all sentiment forgotten just as in the mountains after she had killed her father her brain was working. The door was locked from the other side didn’t move when she tried it, but the wood was old and wet and it strained against the metal of the hinges which held it to the wall. Her knife remained in her pocket and now she took it out, offering a prayer to her grandfather. By the light earlier a crack in the lower hinge had shown itself, something she remembered, and so she went there now, digging the knife into the wood and beneath the hinge and prying. The wood cracked and groaned as metal forced its feeble matter apart. She went on prying, stabbing away at the rotting door until her arm hurt and her fingers were numb and she had splinters all along her skin – but finally the wood and the hinge split with a wet crack. Covered in sweat she then moved onto the upper one. This took longer but it was the same basic work, a task that numbed but was not difficult, until all she knew was the creak of the wood and the clang of when the knife hit the iron by mistake, and she could not see and could not think about what would come next but was only focused on the door and on the hinge and on breathing.

When that was finished she fell down with her body heavy with exhaustion. Both hinges had been severed from the wood or at least enough for her plan perhaps to work. She stood, readying herself, and then went against the door and pushed at it with all her strength. She was a weak girl – a creature cursed for past sins with the pathetic flesh of the tempting untrustworthy inhuman female – and it was solid wood and yet it was old and she was young and she heard it, heard the final deathly groaning of the wood and the lone iron of the lock holding it in place and kept on pushing, her shoulder aching and her palms wet and filthy with rot and her sandals clattering as they kept losing purchase on the stone. She grit her teeth, grunting and sobbing, and did not move even as her body through the pain told her it was finished, and she remained there and kept on pushing and pushing and then at last the door came loose and fell, crashing down with a noise like an explosion, the girl falling with it and landing hard with her knee at once shot through with pain. She remained there with the door a mat beneath her, panting and gasping. When that was done the girl got back up and continued.

She found herself now in a tunnel lit at intervals by dim lanterns in old stone mountings which rested in enclaves dug into the walls, with rotted wooden boards upon the stone forming a kind of flooring. The tunnel went vaguely upward and then far-off rounded a corner and went sharply to the right. Ropes were festooned from the ceiling like long dead eels captured by some fisherman and they were decorated with paper, frayed and old, that had characters written on it. The meaning of that was lost on her but the stone buddhas in the alcoves with the lanterns were language she understood. The girl walked on with her knife ready. Her sandals echoed and her breathing was heavy. After a few minutes she came to the corner and turned and the tunnel went on after that for another length, as far as the last, and so she walked. She noticed that there was no wind and wondered what it was that had put out the lantern in the room she’d awoken in, and she noticed too the faint smell of sandalwood and after a few seconds realised that it came not from the tunnel or the ropes but from her own robes. She found the source of the dripping water at least, a crack in the ceiling that had filled up a portion of the path with a puddle of blackness which glancing down she could see her face in, the face once again of a beast and not of a girl with a name. This in its own way was for now a comfort.

Soon the end of this tunnel came to her and waiting there for her was another door in the way, but this door was unlocked and so she swung it open and slipped inside. Now once more was the noble estate, which had not been a dream and had been real; although the room was underground it had wooden walls of that same type as above, with latticed screens to keep out the rock, and a lantern above in an elaborate mounting which illuminated what was below, which took up most of the rectangular chamber she found herself at the edge of. What was below was a bed dressed in silk coverings, with space enough for at least four people and portable screens around it patterned with images of sunsets and of flying birds.

Before that was an incense burner, set with something not sandalwood that was spicy and strong which now struck her hard and made her wrinkle her nose. It was so she guessed to override the decay, which it almost succeeded at. The whole of the chamber she supposed was to override the misery of human existence with pleasure. The girl recalled what Takamasa had said to her about Lord Hashimoto preferring common women and she had a sudden vision of unpleasantness of pale flesh and mewling noises and the harsh hands of men upon the yielded flesh of women. Somewhere mixed with the smell of the tunnel rock and the incense was the faint scent of stale ejaculate.

The girl hurried swiftly on past the immense bed and to the door at the far end, which opened just as easily and onto another plain tunnel, although a slightly less damp one than the first. It had had more wooden boards to keep out the natural world, and though it was bereft of buddhas was decorated with lanterns that shone brighter, wearing paper to make them more tasteful. This tunnel too curved upwards and so she followed it, smelling not only rot and the incense at her back but something else, fresh air, and feeling from above the faintness of wind. At this the girl remembered who she was and remembered Takamasa, remembered him properly, and the house of evil he had disappeared into. In the glow from the lanterns the rock that poked through the broken wood was glistening, shimmering, showing off a thousand filthy futures. She advanced up the shaft and tasted on her tongue freedom ahead.

Takamasa would have disappeared somewhere within the house or perhaps he would have obtained his treasure and left her, but she thought it was more likely that the lord and his monstrous wife had got to him first. This lord, who kept hidden chambers beneath the earth for prisoners and for intimacy, who smelled of sandalwood and seemed to have no face or form, who had called her ‘oni’, was no ordinary noble and even she was aware of that. She recalled earlier being outside his estate and hearing nothing from within, as if he truly had been waiting here in silence, as a wolf creeping up on its prey, moving with care so as not to startle the innocent meat coming unwittingly into its grasp.

The idea haunted her as the mountain spirits had at home, singing in the wind outside her father’s house, and as then she paused, bowed her head and clasped her hands and repeated to herself the Name of the Buddha. Down here however the words seemed to fall apart as they came as if she were choking on them. The girl put her hand back into her robe and found again the handle of the knife and that served also as a bolster. She went on.

The tunnel curved sharply up, becoming a severe slope, and then she saw above a wooden hatch with grass growing around it and a gap in one side that let the wind in, locked tight by another bolt. The girl scurried up the slope to it. From the other side she could hear the wind and she could feel fresh air. There was nothing to be done with the hatch’s hinges here. She pushed against the hatch and it stayed put and she grunted and pushed at it again and again, her grunting becoming rough and angry, a sound of aimless frustration. She hammered at it with her fists, hurting herself and yet carrying on. Her fingers ached and her neck was sore. She slumped back against the wall, the hatch undefeated, and merely looked up at it and studied the patterns of decay upon the wood. She snarled, hurling herself again at it, scratching and tearing at it. It did not move. A sigh escaped her and she wished it back because it seemed in its leaving to represent a flagging of her energy which she could not afford. One more time she pushed against it with all her feeble strength.

This time the hatch still did not move but there was a creak from the other side of it as if someone was pushing back and she stopped, pulling away, just in time to see the whole hatch ripped free from its hinges and tossed aside to land elsewhere with a crash and flooding the tunnel with moonlight. Squinting and covering her eyes from the sudden brightness the girl didn’t at first notice what had pulled the hatch away, and then she did and she felt once more the nameless terror the thing in the sleeping-space had stirred in her, all of her bestial unthinking mind washed away as if she were a hare noticing at the last second the hunter stood over her with bowstring already drawn and arrow nocked, unable to move and only waiting to die.

The thing that stood was like a man with arms and legs and body and head, and yet it was misshapen, with pieces missing from its all over, its arms seeming lengthened like the legs of a spider by what was absent, a huge chunk of its abdomen only a crater and its torso full of dents, its skull concave and its face bent the wrong way. What this signified was obscured by the thick bandages, stiff with pus and blood, that were wrapped about it from head to toe, leaving all of it only a sickly mass of yellow-red paper but for the single eye peering out from the otherwise-covered face, which was only human but when taken with the rest of it was the worst part of all. It stood stooped with one malformed arm held at its side, the long fingers of a shattered hand gnarled and frozen. The other hand lay at the end of a thick and muscular arm and gripped tight a heavy sword, which was rested upon its contorted left shoulder which was longer than the other.

The thing lifted its broken hand to its chest. She could see only a half-jaw beneath the bandages. “Young girl!” he said, its voice a melted-together ruin. Its bulging and wild eye saw only her. It bent down towards her. “What are you doing in there? I thought you were a ghost.” He put his twitching hand upon the edge of the tunnel entrance. “Are you lost? It’s dangerous down there!” Every sentence came out in that same idiot’s tone, all the words mushed into an incoherent paste. The blood all over the bandages was dry but she saw by the glimmer of the moon that the gore upon the sword was a bright red. “You don’t need to fear me.” he said. “I’m Higuchi, the swordsman. I protect all who live here from monsters and thieves.” She saw what there was of his jaw move beneath the bandages as a shuddering wreck. “Come out of there.”

The kindness of his words was not within his ravaged voice. She kept on seeing the blood upon his sword and she could smell it too, fresh death coating him as surely as the sandalwood had coated his master. “It’s dangerous.” he said again.

The girl found her own voice. “I beg you, Sir Higuchi. I would prefer to stay in here.”

He turned his head, neck cracking. The angle was unnatural and sharp. “Oh? Why so? Young girl, why?”

She thought. “I – I am here for his lordship. I am waiting for him. In his private room.” The thing called Higuchi’s eye widened and his fingers shook. “Oh! The lord’s? Oh! But, you are so pretty…” He sighed, yellow spittle dribbling from his bandages onto the stone and pooling up in front of her. “As his lordship orders, this Higuchi, his loyal swordsman, shall follow.” He stood back up, framed as a skeletal atrocity against the moon. “Very well. Very well.” Then finally he turned from the tunnel’s entrance, ignoring her now, his footfalls heavy and then, as he went, quieter and quieter. The girl did not move until she heard the rattle of a rain shutter being lowered. Then, trembling as much as the thing named Higuchi had but for very different reasons, she eased herself out of the tunnel and into the moonlit space above.

The girl found herself in a small courtyard, without lake or pavilion but only with the wall of the estate on her left and straight ahead. To her right was a roofed aisle and another room covered up by rain shutters, and to her back the same. She had emerged from a hole in the ground and all around her was grass. The moon was at its apex above which meant now it was midnight. The girl stood, listening for the irregular thud of the cursed swordsman’s footsteps, which soon were far-off. She stepped from the tunnel entrance, her sandals touching soil and the skirt of her outer robe kissing grass. In this place and in this place alone there was peace. Beyond the walls a dog howled to itself and there were cicadas in trees nearby and she could feel the air all over her, congratulating her on another minute of life just purchased.

But with the swordsman and the lady both in the house still there was little guarantee of much else, and so the girl went to the wall and looked at it and recalled what she had told Takamasa, that she could climb over it. Her palms hurt but that was no matter. With a glance back at the two rooms adjacent to the courtyard which waited indifferently with their rain shutters all pulled down, she grabbed hold of the top of the wall and grunting hefted herself up. It was possible – with a few minutes or so of practice, and much more sweat, she had managed to take a precarious position atop it. An alleyway was below, lined with trees, and another estate opposite beyond that. Lanterns smouldered in the distant streets of Heian-kyo.

The girl laughed to herself. And yet here with no other obstacles and with survival so close she thought of the name that Takamasa had given her. Takamasa had named her ‘Kaede’. She did not think that was her real name because she had no real name and yet the mystery of it teased her, and might in future she thought end up haunting her. She wanted to know what it meant. With the hand that was not helping to balance on the narrow wall she found the buddha beneath her robes, running her fingers over it, finding each contour and bump and shape, describing with touch the shape of the buddha so that she could learn from it, hear it speak without speaking. The moon remained high. From here several other of the Hashimoto estate’s buildings were visible, larger halls beyond the two small rooms neighbouring her, more places to find monsters within, more places that Takamasa might have wandered into. She sighed and with care slipped from the wall and back into the yard.

Now there were two options: to go east, which from the blood around the aisle seemed to be where the swordsman had gone, or to go south, to search first that small room and then to explore the aisle and find what other chambers remained, until she came to wherever Takamasa might have gone. The swordsman’s half-voice still rang in her ears. She decided to go south. The girl turned away from the tunnel and from the eastern room, all the while conscious of the swordsman, although his footsteps had now disappeared completely. She stepped onto the roofed aisle and to the southern room. There was a portable screen between a gap in the rain shutters, a screen decorated with birds. She moved it aside and eased her way in. What she found was a chamber of seats and cushions and beds all segmented with more screens, robes hung from some of them and from the ceiling, all dark and only lit by the light that had come in from her entry. The air was heavy with dust and she could smell yet more mould coming from the clothes strewn about.

This had been some kind of quarters for servants, she supposed, for people just above people like her. Crouched and quiet she entered, pushing the screens aside without regard, finding interrupted dice games and dried-out inkstones and in one area a series of combs of different sizes laid out next to matching robes hung upon the screens. Lives stopped – a sudden swooping in of karma, of agents of cause and effect which had disrupted things as was their purpose, and which had torn apart the peace upon which good life was based with the disharmony of action, action which then had ended things violently. It had to have been the action of the lord of the estate, who had spoken to her and called her delightful. She reached the other side of the chamber and unfastened one of the rain shutters and lifted it up, slipping under and creeping out onto the aisle. A small bridge went to the next room and to her right were two more rooms connected in this fashion, forming a small courtyard of thick bushes between the four of them. It was what she saw in this yard that made her pause.

She saw shapes lying in the bushes, things inelegantly tossed there, and realised that in the light coming in from the open gap between the roofs above that they were human bodies that had been cut apart with a heavy sword and flung bloodied and torn into the yard, as if it were a ditch for bandits to dispose of their prey in. Two small stone statues of the buddha stood at the steps to the aisle, the violence before them a mockery of their presence. The bodies all wore plain robes and she supposed this was what had happened to the servants, what had disrupted them. Far-off in the estate, somewhere else, she heard heavy clumsy footsteps. The girl clutched the hem of her sleeve tight and when the tears came she caught them with the sleeve and wiped them away.

Over the bodies was the other side of the yard, the aisle going between rooms and to what looked to be a latticed door that led to another part of the house. She saw the other two rooms, closed off by shutters and screens, and felt already there was no sense in searching them. Quietly and with care the girl eased her way around the aisle and to the corridor between the other two rooms and past the bodies. The stench of death came up from them, but not only from them. The whole house, wood and all, she realised, was in a state of advanced rot, all of it dying as surely as anyone with sickness would if their karma merited it. Takamasa, she thought, would be somewhere in it, and maybe he would have the treasure that he had come here for. She felt the gold against her chest and it calmed her. In this manner did the girl proceed into the rest of the estate.

5: The Bottom of the Well

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