"Leaning alone in the close bamboos,
I am playing my lute and humming a song
Too softly for anyone to hear --
Except my comrade, the bright moon."

IN A RETREAT AMONG BAMBOOS
by Wang Wei from 300 Tang Poems 

My paws thread the tall grass, startling the grasshoppers and fireflies perched on the blades.

Claws at the ready, fangs sharp, I stalk my prey. The moonlight beckons me closer, like a ningyo to her deadly embrace, but I keep to the shadows, refusing its sensual call. 

Kodama tremble in their trees as I skirt the edge of the forest. Wolves howl in retreat, my scent in their nostrils. The frogs huddle in silence. 

Something slithers to my left, wet and heavy, heaving and gurgling from the effort. I smell blood and amniotic fluid and filth.

Ayakashi. 

I lick my chops, and lower my body to the ground to wait.

It’s young, an hour or two old maybe, but it has already made a kill. Somewhere nearby a mother lays dead, murdered by this thing formed in her own belly. 

The creature sees me and stops, its two tongues lolling out of its mouth, one red and one white. Placenta is tangled around its hairy legs. 

“Hello, kekkai,” I say.

The kekkai is born from stillbirth, growing in the womb from the corpse of a dead fetus. Its life is supposed to end once it consumes its own mother, but sometimes, the hunger is so great, it keeps on living like a virus, attacking other pregnant women.

It hesitates for a brief moment, then crawls toward me, whining. The moonlight flashes its red eyes. I don’t give it time to reach me. I pounce, fasten my fangs in its neck and snap the spine. It gives a startled yelp, but death comes swiftly.

I eat it whole, making sure no piece is left to raise again, and become something else for me to chase in the night. In my belly, its power rumbles. I absorb it with a purr. I feel rejuvenated, sated and a little euphoric. I roar, the sound echoing above the treetops. It had been a month since I had last eaten. 

The kodama whimper and hold onto their branches for dear life. They have no cause to fear me, but being feared instead of loved is what I crave in my beast form. I get enough love for ten lifetimes when I’m human.

I make the mistake of stepping into the moonlight, and time stops as silver light blinds me. When I open my eyes, he is here, in his white and lilac robe, silver hair shining, golden eyes shimmering, beautiful as sin.

That was disgusting,” the Moon God says, airing himself with a fan painted with naked men and women in a bed of cherry flowers.

I turn my back on him and spring in the forest, knowing he will not give chase to me. 

“I live in the present,” I murmur my mantra, “the past is but a dream.”

I run until I reach the house I keep on the outskirts of Naniwa. I hop over the fence, climb up a tall cedar, and use a thick branch to jump inside my bedroom on the second floor.

Aika is already there, waiting for me with her head bowed, holding a tray with a cup and a bottle of sake. I shift as I land, shedding my white coat in the corner of the room, and walk naked on two legs, stretching my limbs and yawning. With a glance over my shoulder I smirk at the full moon glimmering in the sky.

Not bothering with clothes, I drop on the shitone and wave the girl closer. She places the tray on the mat in front of me, and pours a cup of sake. I snatch it and empty it in one gulp. 

“Another,” I say, slamming the cup on the tray.

“Rough night, Master?” she asks with a raised eyebrow, keeping her eyes down. A tendril of her disheveled long hair moves and picks up my discarded fur from the floor, dragging it closer to her. She folds it neatly and places it next to me. 

I empty the second cup. “I stepped in the moonlight tonight.”

Two tendrils of her hair slash the air. “Did he come for you?”

“As always.”

“How about the ayakashi?”

I drain a third cup. “Dead. You were right. It was a kekkai.” I place my finger under her chin and raise her eyes to meet mine. “How did you know?”

“I met the mother in the market, and I saw a shinigami standing by her head.”

I frown. “You went to the market in daylight?”

Aika shakes her head. “I went to the market at midnight. She was a basket seller and was sleeping among her wares on the cold ground, with a log as pillow. The shinigami was crouched over her, caressing her hair, whispering soothing words. She looked very sick. I think the kekkai was already eating her from inside out. Did she survive?”

The image of the placenta dragging around the monster’s legs comes back to me and I drink another glass of sake. “No,” I say, whipping my mouth. “They never do.”

She looks out the window and says a silent Buddhist prayer for the victim. Her gesture strikes me as hilarious.

“You might just be the first ayakashi that I’ve ever seen praying.”

“Shinto prayers hurt me, but Buddhist ones are harmless, Master, since they don’t originate from our land. So I pray, like I used to pray when I was human.”

“Did you pray for the lives of the young men you killed before I met you?”

Aika’s mouth twists in a cruel grin, the harionago in her showing her fangs. The tips of her black, silky tendrils curve toward her face, and the tiny hooks tied around the hair ends catch the moonlight.

“Never.”

A decade ago she had been killed for sports at only sixteen by eight aristocratic young men. She has been an ayakashi since, searching for revenge. The men were already ashes when I found her, and her purpose of revenge had vanished. This is why instead of destroying her, I took her under my wing.

“Master, will you rest here, or return to the Yoshiwara Iris?”

“I’ll rest here,” I say with a yawn. “It was my night off, after all.”

She snorts and pours another cup of sake.

I lounge on the mattress and glare at the moon. Dawn is here. The Moon God steps away to leave his older sister, Amaterasu, reign in his place.

I turn my back on the window.

“I live in the present, the past is but a dream,” I say over and over until I fall asleep.



Glossary:

Ayakashi – this one shouldn’t be new as it appears both in Kogitsune and Shinigami. Ayakashi is the collective name for yōkai that appear above the surface of a body of water, but in modern times ‘ayakashi’ has been used for vengeful spirits in general. They can possess individuals and make them suffer, and cause disease or even death. Other terms are: onryō for vengeful spirits, shiryō for dead spirits, and ikiryō for live spirits. For simplicity I used ‘ayakashi’ to refer to all vengeful spirits.

Ningyo = mermaid – http://yokai.com/ningyo/

In Japanese mythology, a kekkai (or sankai, which means “birth monster”) is a yōkai (praeternatural creature) that is born to a woman. According to myth, when due care is not given during pregnancy, a kekkai would emerge instead. http://yokai.com/kekkai/

Harionago (針女子, Harionago), also known as Harionna (針女, Harionna) is said to be a beautiful woman with extremely long hair tipped with thorn-like barbs. Her hair is under her direct control, and she uses it to ensnare men. She is said to wander the roads of the Japanese prefecture of Ehime on the island of Shikoku. When she finds a young man, she will laugh at him, and if the young man dares to laugh back, Harionago will drop her terrible, barbed hair and attack.

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