akuma no monogatari (Tale of the Demons)

by Kiri Aradia Morgan

Part One: Escape

 

I see your spirit

in your eyes which never change

the night remembers…

The storm raged and howled like a mad god. Wind and wild splatters of rain shook and splashed the weathered wooden building where Rika had spent her childhood, and lightning split the night sky wide with sudden brilliance. Waves crashed wildly on the rocky shores outside.

Rika sat by the sacred fireplace, alone, and clutched her knees to her chest, remembering her brother Takehiro. On nights like these, she was always seven years old again. "He’s not your brother any more," her mother had said. "You mustn’t cry. Your brother’s already dead. There’s nothing left of him inside that body, just a demon that will kill whatever it touches."

Rika had never believed that. She didn’t think her mother had believed it either. She had wandered out of the shallows and drowned the following summer, the day she had learned she was pregnant again.

Takehiro had been her only sibling and her dearest friend. They had hidden his illness from their parents together. When teenagers got sick like that, their parents always took them to the monks in the temple at the edge of town. The monks prayed and prayed, but the illness did not go away, and no one who had it ever came home again. So they kept it a secret, until Takehiro went mad.

But Rika had seen him, behind those panicked eyes, on the stormy night when their father had cut him down. Whatever else had been inside that body, whatever else had been behind those eyes, whatever else had moved with frantic speed and grown those dripping tentacles, her brother had still been there, too.

And she had let them kill him.

Rika buried her face in the folds of her garments and wept. Here, in the old house, no one could hear her crying. She couldn’t even hear the sobs herself, because the storm was so wild and so loud.

They were probably worried about her at home; she knew that, but she couldn’t quite manage to care.

No one at home would have ever understood.

She pulled her mother’s old kimono tight round her shoulders and huddled within it, shivering and weeping, until she finally exhausted her grief and collapsed in a deep, dreamless sleep.

"Wake up."

Rika opened her eyes. It was bright; the storm was over, the sun had come out, and the sliding door was ajar. She looked up, expecting to see her husband, Koutaro, leaning over her, and was surprised.

Koutaro’s brother, Kouji, smiled. "Come on, sleepyhead."

Rika unfurled herself, stretching her cramped limbs. "Koutaro-sama must be furious."

Kouji shrugged. "He doesn’t understand you. It’s Mother that’s furious."

"And you do?" Rika laughed, but not unkindly.

"I think so," Kouji said quietly.

Rika looked into his eyes. Kouji was almost seventeen, a little more than two years younger than Rika herself. He was quiet and perceptive, always noticing things that most people missed. It had gotten him in trouble when he had been small, but he’d learned not to say what he thought unless asked. "Do you really," she mused.

"Your brother died on a night like last night-- isn’t that what you told me before?" He put his hand on her shoulder. Rika covered his hand with her own.

His fingers slipped into the spaces between hers, and she found herself looking up into his eyes. "I was promised to you," she said, shivering. "But my father was dead, and my aunt thought your father was right-- "

"It wasn’t your fault," said Kouji.

"Koutaro…" She sighed.

"He’s not here," whispered Kouji.

"Don’t say that." Rika glanced at the floor, at her feet. "It isn’t his fault, either."

"That you’re not Shizuka? That Shizuka died? No, that isn’t Koutaro’s fault. But he could treat you like a woman, not a servant-- " Kouji stopped himself before he finished the sentence, and Rika had to smile at him.

"I prefer to be his servant," Rika said quietly.

Kouji stared for a moment, and then bit his lip. "Rika-chan…" His hand slipped up her shoulder, to the nape of her neck where her hair was caught up in a loose, unraveling knot, and Rika sighed, closing her eyes as his lips brushed hers.

She was barren, but she wasn’t a virgin. Koutaro never touched her any more. Her father had told her the ancestors meant her for Kouji. And nothing she’d ever experienced had felt like this.

"I love you," he whispered. "I’ve loved you since I was a child."

"I love you, too," she said, opening her garments. Her skin felt strange, sensitive, and the warmth of the clothes she had slept in all night seemed unbearable. Kouji helped her out of her clothing, exploring her body with reverence and tenderness.

She had watched him in secret before, when he took off his shirt to watch the farmers in the paddies, when he practiced with the bow and paired swords, when he danced at the festivals. She had never before had the chance to look closely and openly, and his skin felt as silky and warm as she had imagined it.

No matter how careful Koutaro was, it always seemed to hurt when he took her.

This time, she wanted it, even if it meant she was hurt.

But she wasn’t. Kouji could not quite manage to finish what he had begun. He used his hands and his mouth, and he made her feel beautiful even if he couldn’t do everything yet. She was sure it would all be perfect eventually.

***

She clutched the folded slip of precious paper to her chest. How had he known? He had taken her own words and given them back to her, changed. He spoke of the nights they had shared, but she thought of her brother when she read what he’d written. Perhaps he’d intended that.

Kouji always knew. His eyes could see things everyone else just missed.

The wind howled and wailed. Waves crashed on the shore. Life went on, for twelve years.

Twelve years. Eighteen more times, the demons came over from Shikoku. Rika had waited for the madness to come to her too, but that hadn’t happened. She had grown up, and begun to bleed, and put up her hair, and been married. In twelve years, a lot of things can happen.

Twelve years: Takehiro’s whole life-- more than half of her own life, or Kouji’s-- perhaps, less than nothing.

She put her brush to the paper again. This time the words would come. Wouldn’t they?

My sleeves are sodden;

my heart is no longer mine;

the stars seem like eyes…

She held her knees to her chest and rocked herself in wordless pain.

It was not going to happen again. She had vowed that.

She had begged, she had prayed, she had cried. But it never solved anything. It had happened in twelve other families since then, and twice in the last year alone. And now it was happening again.

It had not always been that way. Her father had had books from a world long ago, before anyone had heard of the demons. She had seen them, though people did not often speak of the past. In the past, men and women had been far too proud, and had fancied themselves their ancestors’ betters, turning away from tradition to invention, allowing the hakujin to lead them away from the truth down the road to their current tribulations. It was better not to remember those days.

Or so she had often been told.

Rika had never seen a hakujin, except in her father’s old books. They were pale, with strange eyes, but did not seem so different from anyone else. Some people thought they were demons. But some people saw demons everywhere. Some people even believed that their children could turn into demons.

She could do nothing. She was a woman. She was a barren bride from a family already touched by the curse, and she was lucky that the Mori had honored the contract they’d made with her parents. Others would have broken the contract after her brother had lost his humanity. Her father had died not long after that, blaming himself; his sister and one of his brothers had gone the same way. Her aunt had watched her intently, but she had been free of the taint.

And she had been married: not to the boy her father had said the ancestors meant her for, but to his widowed, elder brother.

The Mori should have turned her out three years ago, but with her parents and her brother dead, they felt responsible for her. They reminded her often that she had produced no child for Koutaro. She knew what a burden she was, always ruining whatever she touched. If the rice were burnt, if the weaving were fouled, it was Rika’s fault. At times she thought herself responsible for the evil winds and short catches that beset her village. Could not everything else be laid at her feet?

It was probably her fault that Kouji was dying, the same way her brother had. They’d offended their family guardians. They’d been adulterers less than a day, and the fever had taken him.

Her fault. She knew that. If he died, she wouldn’t outlive him.

She would try one more time.

Like the blossoms that

fall from the sky, your days on

the earth end too soon…

"Rika-chan! Come home!" Koutaro howled.

Rika ignored him. This place, this shrine, had been her father’s. It should have been her brother’s. The books were still here, the dreams were still here, the past was still here, even though people no longer came to this shrine. The kami who lived here was not to be trusted. She tended the shrine when they let her.

The last time she’d been there, she’d been there with Kouji. But no one else knew.

"Rika-chan!" Koutaro bellowed. "I swear I won’t hurt you this time!"

He never meant to hurt her. She understood that very well. She made him do it every time. She was stubborn and willful and dreamy. He hit her rarely, but sometimes nothing else reached her.

"I know you’re in there!"

Rika stood up, slid the door open wide, and stood in the doorway. "I’m going to stay here. You don’t even have to send me away. You should have done it years ago. Go get a wife who’ll give you children."

Koutaro rolled his eyes. "I don’t understand you! I never have! I didn’t ask for much, I didn’t ask you to be Shizuka, I didn’t ask for anything…except a mother for the child that I already have! I don’t even care that you’re barren!"

Rika felt sorry for her husband. He had lost his first wife in childbirth, and everyone knew that he’d loved her. Then they’d given him Rika, as if to rub salt in the wound. She’d been intended for Kouji, the one who lay dying. But Kouji had been so young, and Koutaro had only one child. Her aunt, her father’s sister, had decided that Grandfather Mori made sense: why waste the best years for childbearing, waiting for a boy three years younger to grow up?

"There’s no sense in being anyone’s mother!" snapped Rika. "In ten years, you might have to kill Shinji too! I’m not giving you children to give to the monks to be slaughtered!"

"Is that what this is about…" Koutaro leaned against a tree. She wanted to shake him. Didn’t he remember? Before Takehiro had changed, people had gone to that tree to pray for more children. But nobody trusted the kami here now…except Rika.

"Rika-chan, I’m sorry," Koutaro said gruffly, trying to be kind. "I know you were fond of him. I know. But my brother is gone. The thing that’s inside of him isn’t our Kouji. Be glad they didn’t marry you to him…"

Rage tore out of her gut and put words in her mouth before she could recall them. "He isn’t gone, you fool! And the ancestors meant me for him. My aunt and your parents didn’t care, but my father told me when he was alive that the ancestors always have reasons. Maybe if he’d married me, this wouldn’t have happened!"

Koutaro snorted. She knew what he thought. She’d heard it before. Her father had been crazy, unsettled by the loss of his son, and she sounded just like him. "If the ancestors meant you for Kouji, then why were you born before he was, and why are the demons taking him now?"

"I don’t know." Rika sighed. "I’m only human, Koutaro. I know what I know, and I know this is wrong."

"It’s wrong," said Koutaro patiently, "for you to disobey me and my parents. It’s wrong for you to defy me. It’s wrong for you to embarrass our family like this. You know that. What’s one more wrong when you’ve already done so many wrongs?"

She bowed her head. He was right, of course, and he had no idea how terribly she’d wronged him, what Kouji and she had been doing when he had gone out to answer their overlord’s call. Who was she to defy her father-in-law, the head of the family and the head of the entire village? She was only one woman, a barren, disobedient, weak-minded girl. She was lucky to have a home with the Mori. She knew that.

It wasn’t your fault--

destiny calls, love answers

and memory mourns

When they got home, her mother-in-law left her alone. Rika was too exhausted to wonder if that was a kindness or the start of a new wave of punishments. And she was too heartbroken to care.

Koutaro also left her alone. He usually did. She wasn’t Shizuka, and she had never warmed to him, and she had never gotten pregnant. What was the point? He’d threatened to get a concubine, but she’d encouraged him.

Rika tried to sleep, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t stop thinking of Kouji: alone, in the temple, almost seventeen. She had hoped he’d escape this. Not that she wouldn’t have gotten them both killed eventually.

A couple of hours before dawn, she got up. Koutaro was fast asleep, and even in his sleep, he seemed sad and bewildered. "You deserve better," she whispered. She scribbled a poem on a scrap of white paper, the paper his mother thought far too fine for her courtly pretensions, and let the ink dry while she packed a few clothes.

Shinji lay sleeping in his father’s arms. He needed a mother who would love him better than books. He looked so precious in his sleep. She had wanted to love him, but she was afraid. What would happen when he was thirteen, fourteen, or sixteen? She had always been secretly pleased to be barren. She had little time to think, and less time to read. The life of a new bride was nothing but work, and children did not make it easier. And barrenness lately had meant she could do as she liked when Koutaro was gone.

The ink was finally dry. She folded the paper and twisted it into a knot, then slipped it under Koutaro’s pillow.

Rika slipped down to the kitchen, quiet as a breeze, and packed rice, dried fish, and some water. A part of her said that this was just thievery. Where did she think she would go? She had never left the village. What did she think she would do with a sick boy who’d probably kill her? Would she go to the demons across the water? They’d kill her. They killed whatever they touched with their tentacles. They might help Kouji, though, and teach him how to be one of them. It was a life. And her own life…?

Rika did not pause to think of her own life. She could not stay one more day in the village. One more night with Koutaro, making him miserable, shaming his family, taking half-hearted care of his whole-hearted child. She was tainted. The demons had touched her. Grandmother Mori had warned them, but no one had listened.

The gods and the ancestors gave her people fewer children every year, and each year there were more raids from Hell, and more children who didn’t grow up to become like the demons because they were killed. She wondered how long it would be before everyone else in the village was dead or a demon.

Perhaps she was a demon too.

First, she went to the shrine. She tossed her provisions into a sack with some books she had saved from her father’s collection, and slipped a small sack of old coins into her waist sash. The governments that had issued the money were gone and forgotten, but the metal was good.

The monks in the temple were sleeping. Even the exorcist had drowsed away. After so many others, he must have known how futile this was. Rika could hardly breathe through all of the incense. There was one guard, and he was watching Kouji, to warn the others if Kouji changed over. The last thing that he had expected was somebody trying to break in. Or a small sack of coins, firmly applied to the top of his head.

Kouji lay on a futon, bound, his long hair damp with sweat, tossing and wriggling, trying to sleep. The prayers were not working. His forearms were swollen. It had to be painful.

She crouched at his side, stroking his shoulder, and began to cut the bonds. He looked up at her. His eyes always shone when he looked at her. They were still clear, though he couldn’t hide the pain. "Rika-chan…is this another dream?"

"Get up," she said. "It’s not going to work. You’ll change like the others did, and then they will kill you."

Kouji stared at her. "Rika-chan?"

"I’ve come here to take you wherever the demons go, Shikoku or China or Hell, wherever they come from. I can’t bear the thought of a world without you in it."

There. She had said it. She couldn’t believe she had said it. What on earth did it mean?

Kouji got up. "This is crazy," he said, but he followed her out of the temple.

"I know," said Rika. "But I am quite mad. Everyone knows that."

Once they were outside, Kouji swallowed hard. "They’ll kill you. If they even accept me."

"They’ll accept you. They probably all came from places like this." She shrugged. "You’ll probably kill me anyway. But what else can I do?"

He stroked her hair away from her face. "It wasn’t meant to be like this. I wrote you that poem to make you feel better. It wasn’t to bring you to this."

Rika shrugged. "Koutaro doesn’t love me. You do. It’s our destiny. Everyone knew that. But Father was dead and my aunt didn’t care. They ignored it. And we did our best. If you kill me, I don’t really mind. Unfaithful wives have been dying for love for thousands of years."

"If I kill you," he murmured, "I’ll kill myself too."

"I don’t want you to die," Rika whispered. "Not even if you do grow tentacles and kill me."

"I love you, Rika-chan…" His eyes filled up with tears.

"Then let’s go now. While you still have the strength. When we get out of town, you can kill me. I want to be with you one last time, and then I want to die for you." She took his hands in hers. "When people find out that I’ve left with you, if I ever come back, they’ll kill me anyway. I’d rather die with you, knowing that you’re still alive, than die of old age here, a shame to your family, knowing that I let you die and did nothing. I’ve never been a very good wife. I was never a good daughter. I haven’t been much good to anyone, really. But for you…"

Tears ran down her face. She wasn’t sure what she was crying for. Kouji was going to live, if they made it. There was nothing to cry about. If she prayed, if she chanted the sutras, she’d go to the Pure Land and never see Kouji again, or her brother; after all, they were demons, everyone said so. But at least she’d have given life once to something outside of herself.

"We’ll die together," Kouji said gently; there were tears streaming down out of his eyes, too. "If we die together, we can both die as humans. It’s the only proper expression for a love such as ours. We’ve lost our honor, but we can regain it together. It wasn’t your fault. I seduced you."

Rika shook her head. "Don’t die for me, Kouji-chama. Live on as a demon."

"I don’t want to kill you," said Kouji. "You did your best. You always tried. Koutaro never gave you a chance. It isn’t your fault you’re not Shizuka. I would have loved you better. But now…it doesn’t matter, now. I don’t want to kill you, Rika-chan."

"Then don’t. But we’re leaving."

Kouji nodded, then faltered. "I feel sick. I’m burning up inside."

"I know you do. We have to get out of the village, though. You can be as sick as you want to be once we reach someplace else. There are plenty of old temples, old shrines, old waystations. There are plenty of buildings left out on the roads. If we’re gone they won’t go far to look for us."

They walked all the rest of the night and through most of the morning. Nobody followed them. Maybe the village was relieved to be rid of them both.

She got him as far as the train station. Hundreds of years it had been since the last train had come there. She only knew what they looked like because of her father’s old books. The building was still very sturdy. She had often wondered why nobody lived there. Fear of demons, perhaps. People believed that the demons came out of the old places.

It was almost noon. They walked up to the building. The old glass doors didn’t open. At least there was a roof above the rails. "We should sit down. Perhaps we should eat. I should be hungry. You should be, too." Rika unshouldered her pack.

"I wish you’d let me help with that," said Kouji.

"You’re sick," said Rika. She untied the bundle and started to search for the fruit she had packed.

"It’s happening." Kouji held out his arms, and Rika looked up at them. She could see the tentacles moving under the thin, dying skin.

Rika was fascinated. She had been afraid that she would find the sight repulsive, but this was Kouji’s body, and she cherished it, even now. "It’s all right if you kill me," she whispered. "Just love me forever."

"I’m scared, Rika." He took her knife and handed it to her hilt first. "We’ll make love, then we’ll die, but we’ll both die as humans. I’m frightened."

"I’m not." She sighed, and gathered him into her arms. He was warmer than she was. "I won’t kill you, and I won’t let you kill yourself, Kouji. I don’t care about honor. I only care that you live, even as a demon."

He buried his face in her throat. "You were supposed to be my wife."

"I am your wife," she whispered, tracing the edge of his ear with her tongue. "And because I’m your wife, I’ll die for you."

He kissed her hungrily. "I could never ever hurt you," he whispered.

"Then don’t," she replied. "I don’t mind living if I get to stay with you. Make me a demon too, if you can. We’re both damned, after all."

"Oh! Rika-chan…I never wanted you so bad before…" He fumbled with her clothes. Rika untied her sash and opened her garments. She could not believe he was capable, sick and fevered as he was, but she wanted him to touch her again. One last time.

"…shhh." Rika pressed her lips to Kouji’s lips, trying to remember how the demons made their kills. She had made her peace with life. She was not afraid. The warmth and weight of his body on hers was pleasant, and the feel of his skin over hers was a miracle. She could think of much worse ways to die.

Tentacles gripped her arms, not painfully but pleasantly, firmly, and smaller ones slid moistly over her skin. Something deep inside of her relaxed. Then she felt something, her life or her soul, pouring out of her mouth and her arms and her heart, and it didn’t hurt at all, it was glorious.

This is it, she thought. Take me. Whatever you take when you kill, you can have it. My soul, you can have it. My heart, you can have it. My life, you can have it.

He drew her in, faster and faster, and something inside of her melted and soared.

"I’m not dead," she said breathlessly. The sun poured over them both, and his skin was all golden and warm with it, Amaterasu Herself blessed their joining.

"No," whispered Kouji. "You’re not. You’re so beautiful… So many colors I never saw before…" And then the whole world melted out of the air in a flurry of fingers and tentacles, in his mouth, on her mouth, and all over her body, and he really made love to her. Finally.

When it was all over, then she was scared. Not of Kouji, never of Kouji, but now that she’d lived, what would happen to both of them? Where did they go to live now?

"I don’t want to go to the demons," said Kouji, "if I don’t have to kill people."

Rika looked up at him, startled. "What makes you think that you don’t?"

Kouji shivered. "I…needed something. I’d have taken it from anyone, I think, if you hadn’t been here, right here in my arms. But you gave it to me. You gave me as much as I needed of…whatever it was." His eyes were full of tears. "I would have killed for that…it hurt so bad…but you loved me through all of the pain. You were willing to die for me, Rika, but I need you alive, not dead."

"I’d rather live for you than die for you," said Rika, smiling. "I don’t want to hear any more about honor."

He kissed her. "You should have been mine all along. That much is clear."

Rika pursed her lips. "Maybe nobody has to die," she said quietly. Then she buried her face in the curve of his throat. "But no one will ever believe us. If they see you, they’ll kill you. If they see us together, they’ll probably kill both of us. They’ll never believe that I still have my soul."

"I know that." He sighed. "So where do we go? I’m not willing to die with you yet."