Takamagahara: The High Plain of Heaven, dwelling place of the Heavenly Gods
“In the beginning before Heaven and Earth were separated, there lived three deities. They were born when the light sprang free from the shapeless, all-encompassing body of chaos, and the silence of the universe was broken by the music of life. They lived for a while and had children, then vanished, never to be seen again. Later, particles broke away from the dark matter and created shapes of their own. Thus, were the clouds formed. Then came Heaven, which was to be called Takamagahara.
Many other gods were born after that from the children of the first three gods, but the ones that gave birth to the land of Yamato and all the islands in between were Izanagi and Izanami, and to them the Yamato man owes the most.”
Hiro rested the brush on the inkstone and looked up from his paper. Sensei had asked him to read the Kojiki and summarize the myth of creation in his own words. Next to him, Yoshi was writing the kanji for ‘mountain’ in large, fluid strokes. The sensei had gone to see to the others, leaving Hiro and Yoshi alone at the lacquered desks brought from Umakai’s study.
It had been four days since the man arrived, and of all the four, this day had the nicest weather. The sun was up, the sky was fair, and the cherry trees were in bloom. The snow had melted completely, and although it remained cold, it was still a day worth spending outside.
When Hiro heard his younger siblings laugh, he raised his eyes from his paper, curious what brought them such merriment. His lips curled into a snarl. Hideyoshi Sensei had installed a straw target on top of a stone lantern, and he was showing the boys how to hit it with rocks.
“You were right,” Yoshi said. “There’s something strange about the sensei. He smells funny, too.”
Hiro snorted. “Smells funny? Like what?”
Yoshi answered seriously, “Like blood.”
Hiro shook his head and returned to his book, lost in the stories about the gods of his ancestors. He’d just reached the death of Izanami when he heard the happy chirp of an uguisu.
“I think I’m going to take a break,” he said.
“Do you want company?” Yoshi asked.
“No, I’d rather be alone.”
He found the bird perched on one of the lanterns and went to say hello. He’d considered the uguisu his good luck charm ever since one of them had led him to meet a god.
The bird ruffled its feathers, pecking inside a wing and rearranging the plumage.
“How are you doing today, nightingale?” he asked.
The bird gave him a one-eyed glance and chirped.
“Are you hungry?”
Another chirp. Hiro stepped back to his writing desk and picked up a crumb of his unfinished rice cake.
“Hit it, Young Masters,” he heard the sensei shout. Blood curdled in his veins. The incitement was followed by the cheers of his younger, impressionable brothers. Before he could move, they began to chuck rocks at the uguisu.
“No!” But it was too late. One of the rocks hit the bird and knocked it to the ground. It twitched once then grew still.
Hiro fell to his knees, his fingers trembling above the dead uguisu’s body.
“Hiro? What happened?” Yoshi’s voice.
He gently picked up the tiny bird. Its limp head hung on the edge of his palm.
Yamato men were highly superstitious. They saw a blessing or curse from the gods in every phenomenon, interpreting each strange occurrence as a sign that would affect their future. When Hiro held the uguisu, his fallen good luck charm, he knew something bad was going to happen and it was all the sensei’s fault.
When Yoshi saw Hiro’s face heating up and his jaw clenching, he tried to placate him.
“Calm down,” Yoshi whispered. “The servants are watching. You must not lose your temper.”
“Young Master, what’s wrong? Is everything all right?” Hideyoshi Sensei appeared at his side and made the mistake of touching his shoulder.
Hiro slapped his hand away and shoved him with all his might. “Get out of my sight! Get out! Before I order the guards to hang you from a tree.”
“All of you, get away from me!”
They obeyed. He was the heir, after all, and he’d been left in charge. When he was alone, he clutched the uguisu to his chest and began to pray to the gods for forgiveness.
Behind my throne stood the real plum tree. It trembled with the boy’s fury. One of the leaves held a green caterpillar, its body shimmering like wildfire.
When Hiro started to cry, the caterpillar dropped to the ground, burst open, and seeped pus. I turned to the veil in time to see the color drain from the boy’s face. He was losing focus as his world grew dark at the corners. The pus stretched like lava oozing from a volcano.
Hiro’s scream was filled with grief. His humanity began to peel away, and his true self started emerging like a roaring tiger.
I hit the ground with my staff, and kagerō misted over the garden. I was going to have to stop him from exposing himself, not because he was dangerous to the humans surrounding him—I couldn’t care less—but because it was not the right time yet.
I broke through the veil and stepped outside the kagerō, stopping time. As my crow-feathered robe trailed on the grass, the green blades withered.
Hiro’s eyes burned with fire. But as he saw me approach, his features gradually changed, his complexion shifting from angry red to ghostly pale.
“You remember me, don’t you?” I grazed his brow with two fingers. The fire in his eyes dwindled at my touch, and he dropped his head, falling into a dazed stupor.
The soul hiding within the body of this human boy awakened an ancient hunger in me, a need to caress his hair and stroke his cheek. The faded memories taunted me, but I held back. For now, I had to teach and nothing more.
I circled around Hirotsugu through the mist. We were alone in this world between worlds. My every step was accented with clinks of the bells on my bone staff, tied there with strings of human hair.
Hiro turned his head, following the sound of the bells. His mouth was slack and his breathing slow and deep. His soul might have been sleeping, but even from the depths, he recognized the peals.
“The world is bleak for the likes of you, Fujiwara no Hirotsugu,” I whispered in his ear, delighted by his shiver. The feathers on my shoulders brushed his cheek and he flinched. I crouched by his side. “But you have a gift to drive that darkness away. Use it. Look beyond the physical. Take the soul of the bird in your hands before it fades. Do it. I know you can.”
“I don’t see it,” he whispered.
“But you do. Look closer, my little plum child. You were born for this.”
I stepped away from him and took the mist with me. As the kagerō vanished, time resumed.
A cloud passed over the sun. Hiro shook his head and slowly returned to himself. At first, he was confused about where he was, even who he was, but then the dead uguisu brought his anger back like a typhoon.
“Take the soul of the bird in your hands,” I spoke again through the veil.
Hiro rubbed his scalp. His mind was a jumble of thoughts and voices fighting for supremacy. He was gripped by a strange and powerful instinct he’d never felt before.
“That’s it,” I said. “Find the bird’s soul. Grab it before it leaves.”
He closed his eyes and reached for the corpse. His blood drummed in his ears. His hand wrapped around something soft and warm.
My claws tightened on the bone staff in excitement.
After an eternity, Hiro opened his eyes and gasped. The world tilted, and he blinked several times.
“Yes! Now go to the tree. You will find help there.”
Hiro closed his fingers around the bird’s soul and ran as if he were being chased by ghosts.
I lounged on my throne of skulls, and laughed and laughed and laughed.