Welcome to Tokyo Weekender’s new monthly series, TW Creatives. In this series, we will feature various works by Japan-based writers, photographers, videographers, illustrators and other creatives in a bid to provide one additional platform for them to exhibit their talent. The works submitted here belong entirely to the creators — Tokyo Weekender only takes pride in being one of their most passionate supporters! For our first entry, we present the short fiction work of Himeji-based author Simon Rowe.
Do you have a work to share? Got a question? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mori leaned into his old Honda Super Cub, holding it to the mountain road’s edges and inside curves. He could make this journey with his eyes closed, trusting his senses to guide him around the contours of the mountainside, past the lake and over the four iron truss bridges that led into the town at the bottom of the valley.
The October morning had dawned cool and still, and it gave him cause to wonder at the strangeness of the previous night’s weather. The wind had come from the west, suddenly and violently in the early hours, roaring like a freight train up the valley, felling old trees and fleecing young ones of their leaves. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, it had died.
Mori motored onwards, dodging the debris strewn across the road, until the lake appeared and the road straightened against its shore. He passed by the shuttered boat rental shop with its colourful dinghies laid upside-down on the pier.
As the road climbed gently back to the mountainside, he revved the Cub, shooting glances at the groves of maple trees where picnic tables afforded the finest views of the lake. In the coming weeks they would be filled with daytrippers from the towns and cities, enjoying the fiery hues of the surrounding hillsides.
Autumn was Mori’s favourite season. He looked forward to digging bamboo shoots, harvesting sweet potato and picking the large orange persimmons that hung like light bulbs from the trees his grandfather had planted over a hundred years ago. But this year a great scourge had descended on his farm. It had ravaged his gardens, smashed open his chicken coop, kicked over his beehives and chased off his two goats. Each time he repaired and replanted, it returned by the light of the moon to destroy and demolish again. It was the reason he was making this trip into town—to hire a hunter.
He crossed a bridge and felt the old iron truss shudder beneath him. At the sight of the mountain stream raging far below, he felt a sudden urge to pee. Stopping at the next crest, Mori walked to the roadside barrier and unzipped. Taking in the vast panorama of lake and the mountains beyond, he let go with great satisfaction a golden spout that fell fifty metres to the water below. As the last droplets tumbled, something caught his eye: a plume of smoke. It seemed to be rising from the lake shore further along the road. Odd, he thought; the barbecue crowds had long since gone, and the autumn picnickers were yet to arrive. He mounted the Honda, kicked the starter and set off.
Skirting the bend on the other side of the crest, he saw tyre marks. Where they ended, an iron barrier hung bent and twisted, as if a small elephant had charged through it. He pulled over and peered down. Through the billowing smoke he spotted an upturned vehicle lying at the water’s edge. Without removing his helmet, he climbed through the barrier and clambered down the rocky slope.
It had once been a silver Suzuki compact car, but the force of the impact had crumpled it like aluminium foil. The driver’s door had been punched in and the windshield glass sparkled like gems strewn across the shore. Mori peered inside but found no one. He scanned the lake shore but found nothing. Squinting into the sun’s glare, his gaze settled on a piece of cloth floating just off the shore among the reeds. He ventured into the chill water, careful not to lose his footing, and waded out until he was waist deep. Drawing nearer, it occurred to him that it wasn’t cloth but a shirt inflated with air. His eyes widened. Beneath the shirt, the body of a woman floated.
Mori had seen cadavers before, mostly young men he’d helped to pull from bore holes and collapsed shafts of the silver mine on the other side of the lake. But that was years ago, another era, another life. The body now in his arms gave him cause to panic. Her face was as pale as porcelain, her lips thin and blue, and on one side of her head a bruise had spread like a thundercloud.
He shook her gently, then slapped her face and shouted. But she could not be roused. He carried her to the shore, put her on her side and forced his fingers inside her mouth, searching for obstructions. Turning her onto her back, he placed the heels of his hands over the centre of her chest and pumped in quick rhythm. He put his lips to hers, blew, and watched her chest rise and fall. A groan sounded, followed by coughing, and soon came the soft gurgle and wheeze of air flowing.
Certain that she had no broken bones, he hoisted her onto his shoulder fireman-style. At fifty-six years old he was no spring chicken, but a life of manual labour and farming had given him a level of strength unusual for a man of his age. He inched his way back to the road and, leaving the motorbike roadside, set off for home. She was small and waif-like but her deadweight made the journey slow going. Her occasional groans were strangely comforting—it meant she was still alive. By the time he sighted the red roof of his farmstead among the cedar trees, his legs were leaden and his shoulders numb.
The hundred-year-old house had a large main room with a central fireplace. Mori laid the woman on a futon beside it and gently peeled away her damp clothes. He propped her head on a pillow of buckwheat chaff and pulled a winter kakebuton across her to ward off the chill. In his kitchen he heated a pot of water, dissolved in a chicken stock cube and set it aside to cool. But she continued to sleep, and it wasn’t until early evening that he decided to let her rest the night.
He sat in the engawa, the long, narrow veranda in which his grandfather used to smoke and look out onto valley. As he watched the sun’s rays retreat across the forested mountaintops, he began to fret. Should he have ridden to the town for help? Should he have gone to his neighbour’s home to use the telephone? Had it been wise to bring her here? He shut the flyscreens and rolled out his futon across the engawa floorboards. There he lay, shifting restlessly, listening for changes in the woman’s condition but hearing only sounds of the outside world: an owl hoot, a deer bark, and a million crickets filling the night with their pulsating symphonies.
In the morning, he left a bowl of rice gruel with some pickled plums and a cup of barley tea beside her futon. He then departed the house one foot. The car was still there beside the lake, blackened and upturned like a chargrilled turtle on its back. He would have to report it to the police sooner or later. The thought weighed on him.
He carried his frown all the way back to the house, but when he slid back the door to the central room, his eyes widened. The futon was empty and the woman’s clothes were gone. The rice bowl lay beside the hearth with only the plum stones left inside it. He called out, moving from room to room, but the old house remained silent and still. As he passed along the hallway and back into the large room, he felt a sudden rush of air beside him. Something cold and hard pressed at his jugular.
‘Who are you?’ said the voice.
The pinprick at his neck forced him to hold his breath. He felt himself pushed into the centre of the room with a force that surprised him. Her eyes were cold and fierce, her hair dark and wild across her face. She was small but capable.
‘Who are you?’ she said again.
He glanced at the carving knife in her hand. ‘Mori,’ he said. ‘I live here.’
‘Ochi valley, Kamikawa.’
‘You crashed it into the lake. I carried you back here.’
The blade wavered, glimmering, but remained pointed at him.
‘How long have I been here?’
‘A day and a half.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I’ve told you. My name is Mori. This is my farm.’
Her gaze ranged the room, taking in the rustic furniture, its smoke-stained walls, the old photos of boaters on the lake, and the large wooden fish that hung as a talisman above the fire hearth in the middle of the room.
‘Where’s my car?’
‘You need a doctor.’
‘It’s down the road, beside the lake,’ he said. ‘You crashed through the barrier. I pulled you from the water.’
‘I must get to the car.’
‘There’s something inside.’
Mori watched her closely. He knew accident victims were prone to irrational behaviour. He had seen it in the injured miners he’d wrestled from the shafts. ‘Tell me what it is and I’ll get it for you. I have a motorbike.’
‘It’s wrapped in cloth. It was on the seat beside me.’
For a moment the question seemed to stump her, then she said, ‘Something jumped in front of the car …’
‘Probably a deer. They come down from the mountains to forage.’
‘I tried to swerve …’
‘It happens.’ He glanced at the bowl on the floor, hoping to change the subject. ‘Are you still hungry?’
She lowered the knife, stepped back to the hearth and picked up the bowl. ‘Thank you,’ she said, passing it to him.
A heavy dew had settled in the night and the cliff face was wet and slippery as Mori clambered down to the lake. Outside and inside the charred wreck he searched the shattered glass and shredded metal, and soon his fingers touched on a bundle of blackened cloth. The object inside was long and stiff and tied with a purple cord.
But when he returned to the house, he found her asleep. The bowl had been washed and placed on the counter, the knife returned to its holder. He placed the cloth bundle beside her futon and retired to the kitchen to prepare lunch. He made a broth with the last drops from a bonito sauce bottle, and to this he added garlic cloves, broken carrots and shreds of Chinese cabbage leaves salvaged from the garden. He ate alone in the engawa, contemplating the slow creep of the autumn hues across the valley, turning now and again to watch her sleep. After lunch he placed a tray of food beside her futon with a flask of barley tea and then set off for the fields above the house.
It was late afternoon when he paused to rest and consider his resurrected vegetable patch. As he gulped from his tea flask, a curious sound reached him. It was a soft, wailing melody, and it seemed to come from the house. Clutching his spade, he stood listening. It was the sound of a wooden flute.
He returned to find her seated in the engawa, facing the valley, with a shakuhachi in her hands. Unsure if she had heard him, he stood in the doorway, captivated by the melody, which plunged and soared like the mountain peaks. It was an ethereal sound, mysterious and fleeting, and for the briefest of moments Mori imagined his grandfather seated at the hearth, his wispy grey beard touching his kimono collar, turning river fish on bamboo skewers over the glowing coals. He too had played the shakuhachi. Could it be that she was summoning his spirit?
The melody stopped.
‘Thank you,’ she said and turned to him. ‘For returning my flute.’
‘I must ask you something,’ he said.
‘Please don’t.’ Before he could utter a word, she said, ‘I will leave in the morning.’
‘To where? The only way out is the road to town. Or the trail that runs east across the mountain pass to—’
‘Izumo Shrine,’ she said.
‘In Shimane prefecture?’ Mori said incredulously. ‘But that’s more than fifty kilometres away.’
‘There are shrines along this trail.’
‘How did you know that?’
‘I will be on my way in the morning.’
‘In your condition? On foot? You need help.’
‘Isn’t it you who needs help?’
‘It’s nothing,’ he said, realising she must have seen him at work.
‘Did a typhoon do that?’
‘Then why don’t you catch it?’
‘Because he’s too big.’
‘Don’t you have a gun?’
‘I was on my way to hire a hunter in the town when I found you.’
Mori took a seat beside her in the engawa. The sound of crickets had returned and seemed to be coming from directly beneath the floorboards. ‘There were many hunters here once,’ he said. ‘My grandfather was one. But they are almost all gone now and young people aren’t interested in such a profession. Deer and boar numbers are rising. They are coming down into the valley to eat our crops.’
‘Have you tried poison?’
‘Other animals may die.’
‘You’re afraid of taking life?’
‘Everything has a right to live.’
‘Without food? How will you survive? Winter is coming.’
‘I’ll manage,’ he said again with growing irritation.
‘Does this boar come often?’
‘Now is the season of bamboo shoots. He’ll be back soon enough. Look out there—see those over-turned stones? None of them weigh less than a hundred kilograms. Only a huge beast can do that.’
She asked to see the fields. Reluctantly, he led her up the narrow path and through the groves of persimmon and loquat trees. When they arrived at the fields, the rural idyll vanished. Everywhere the soil had been churned and cratered. A line of heavy-duty wire grills lay tossed like a child’s playthings along the field’s edges.
‘That used to be a fence. Just like that was once a cage—over there,’ he said, pointing to a stand of wild oak and camphor trees where the mangled wreckage of a large wire contraption lay with its door hanging by one hinge. ‘Each time I replant and repair, it returns.’
‘When did it come last?’
‘Three days ago. With sows and little ones. They ate most of my vegetables and spoiled the rest.’
The sky had turned the colour of copper, and tiny silhouettes now flitted above the treetops gorging on insects in the fading light. Towards the east, the horizon glowed with the promise of a full moon. Mori pondered it for a moment and said grimly, ‘It will come again tonight.’
Back at the house he prepared the hearth, placing charcoal in a small pyramid and using a length of bamboo to gently feed in the oxygen. In a few moments, a soft glow had pushed back the dimness of the large room. She took out her flute and played while he set about preparing a dinner of steamed rice and pickled plums in the kitchen. He produced a bottle of shōchū and offered her some, mixing it with hot water and serving it in an earthen cup, which he placed on the hearth beside her.
They ate and drank in silence, watching the pulsing coals.
‘Have you lived here all your life?’ she asked.
‘No. I was born in Tokyo.’
‘I don’t care for big cities.’
‘Neither do I.’
‘Is that why you came here?’
‘My parents died when I was young. I came to live with my grandfather, then I got a job at the mine.’
‘A silver mine, on the other side of the lake.’
‘In this beautiful place?’
‘Some would say a vein of silver is more beautiful.’ He set down his bowl, picked up the iron tongs and stoked the coals. ‘It brought jobs and prosperity to the town. Then the price of silver crashed and it became cheaper to buy from China and Australia. So the mine closed and the miners left. The town is barely a town anymore.’
‘But you didn’t leave.’
‘This my grandfather’s house. He built it himself, with timber from the forest, reeds from the lake, stone from the streams.’ He picked up his shōchū and drank deeply. When he returned the cup to the hearth, his face glowed with the intensity of the coals. He wondered what his grandfather would have made of this mysterious woman who sat beside him with a flute in her hands at his fireplace.
Despite the chill, Mori chose again to sleep on the veranda. Yet, even after consuming half a bottle of shōchū, he could not sleep; he tossed and turned, sat upright, peered into the large room at the formless shape of her futon, knowing that beneath it lay a living, breathing woman. It had been two summers since a woman had slept there—the mine manager’s wife. But all that was a distant memory, just like the mine itself. The moon cast its eerie blue light across the valley until, finally exhausted, he fell asleep.
He dreamed of the lake and a boat painted green; of himself lying stretched out and dozing between the oars, a breeze licking his face and the scent of wild pine washing over him. He heard the laughter of other boaters and felt the breeze strengthen. A cloud passed across the sun, a shadow across his face, and the lake’s surface grew ruffled. The boat began to pitch. He grappled the oars and hove to. Now spindrift lashed his face, blinding him, and from somewhere out in the squall came strange wailing cries. The harder he pulled on the oars, the more he stayed still. Great waves towered over him and their steely sides were filled with the faces of miners he had known, dead and gone. They tossed his boat like a cork in a stormwater drain.
He awoke with a start. The house was calm and still. He exhaled, returning his head slowly to the pillow. Then he heard it, a sound so light and fragile that it might have been a valley breeze. He rose from his futon, crossed the floor and pulled back the woman’s kakebuton. His eyes widened.
He hurried from the empty futon to the room where his grandfather used to sleep at the rear of the house. Pulling back the old paper doors, he pressed his face to the window and peered up at the fields.
Against a midnight blue sky, her figure sat straight and upright, with the flute to her lips. His first thought was to bring her back to the safety of the house. But a strange paralysis overcame him. He stood transfixed, listening to this new melody that came deeper and more forceful than before. It seemed to reach up through the forest, across the streams, over boulders and into the ravines, as if calling to something …
The realisation struck him like an anvil—he thrust open the window and cried out. But her haunting notes persisted until from high on a forested slope above the field came the whip crack of snapping tree branches.
An enormous form emerged from the edge of the forest and stood silhouetted against the night sky, facing her. Its snout moved back and forth, vacuuming up the scents and odours from the earth, its great curved tusks gleaming in the moonlight.
She did not flinch. She did not stop playing.
Out of the forest others emerged, sows with piglets snuffling and grunting, waiting and watching behind their giant patriarch.
The beast trod nearer until its glistening snout seemed only inches from the woman and her flute. Steam billowed from its huge maw. Mori wondered if he was still dreaming; he had never seen anything so terrifying.
Then, slowly, the woman rose to her feet and with small, nimble steps moved around the huge beast. Playing her flute with one hand, she ran the other along its broad razor back so that it quivered beneath her touch. Beside its left shoulder she stopped. In one smooth action, she twisted the flute so that it became two pieces. Mori glimpsed the flash of steel in the moonlight and a violent spasm rocked the body of the beast. It jerked its head in the air, coughed and fell to its knees. Mori shoved aside the window and leaped into the garden. As he reached the orchard, the air began to stir around him. Tree leaves rustled. Fruit thudded to the ground. Within seconds, a roaring gale had risen. It forced him to take shelter in the lee of a persimmon tree. Clutching its trunk, he held on for dear life as his farm flew by in an angry swarm.
For how long the wind lasted he couldn’t tell, but as quickly as it had come it disappeared. He hauled himself up, gasping. Brushing grit from his face, he waited for the world to right itself. Then he searched the fields and the forest verge, calling out, but hearing only his own breathless voice. There were no footprints in the soil—nothing to say she had ever been there. He realised then that he did not even know her name.
The boar lay at the edge of the field. In the light of the moon, it resembled a small mountain with a dark stream oozing from one side.
He did not report the car accident. In the week that followed, he never heard or saw any report of a missing person; not from the police, nor from his neighbours. The car wreck remained where it was; townsfolk said it must have been joyriders from one of the lowland towns.
As for the boar, Mori cleaned and quartered it himself. He gave some to his neighbours, and some to the police who had visited him enquiring after the abandoned car. The rest he cured in a homemade smoker. The winter would be a long one.
He never told anyone about the woman. Not because it would have brought undue trouble to himself, and to the police who had no report of a missing person, but because of what he found in his grandfather’s closet several days later. It was an old Japanese calendar, in which the months of the year were called by different names, and it caused Mori to wonder. He lifted down from his bookshelf a heavy encyclopedia and opened its dusty covers on the tatami floor. Thumbing the brown and brittle pages, he stopped near the middle and his finger came to rest on the following words:
‘October is known as Kaminazuki, or Month of the Gods. This is due to the popular belief that Shinto gods from all over the country depart their own shrines to gather at Izumo Shrine in Shimane.’
Simon Rowe is author of Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan (2017), and the soon to be released, Pearl City: Stories from Japan and Elsewhere (2020). He is also a member of “Writers in Kyoto” group, a Kyoto-based community for English-language writers, founded by author John Dougill. For more information about the group, see here. For more information of Rowe’s upcoming book and ways to support it, see his recently launched Kickstarter campaign.
Illustration and featured image by David Jaskiewicz