Part One: The Green Path
At least when they flooded the valley, it would be cool. Just now, Masumi would have given anything for a breath of wind, or for a cloud to pass over the sun. His shirt was sticking to his back, his arms and neck were getting sunburnt, and the glaring light was giving him a headache, which was not remedied by the thready whine of crickets from all around. He’d played in this forest all the time as a child; he didn’t remember it being this hot, or this unwelcoming.
To make the day perfect, he had just stubbed his toe on something very solid hidden by undergrowth at the foot of a tree. Rubbing his temples, he bent down to see what he had walked into.
It was a guardian deities statue. It looked old, grown with moss, the stone worn and softened by the years, but the carving was still clear. He could make out two people standing side by side, and something like a rope or cord tied between them.
Have to tell the archaeologists about that, Masumi thought, making a note of it in his memorandum book.
Figure on the right has lost its head, but the left remains undamaged, he wrote. Must have been a road running this way at one time.
He didn’t bother making note of the fact that there was nowhere for a road to go. If he walked in this direction, all he would find, after about fifteen miles of dense forest, was the road that passed beneath the mountains to the city on the other side.
The legends said differently, of course. For as long as Masumi could remember, people had said there was a haunted village somewhere in this valley. Everyone in the area knew someone whose cousin’s best friend’s sister had been spirited away. When the dam construction project was announced, the local newspaper had done a piece on the legends, and Masumi had sent the clipping to Miyako, with a note scribbled at the top: This is where my next assignment is – if I go missing, come and look for me!
He straightened up, pocketing the notebook again and wiping sweat from his face. The valley was a cauldron of summery heat, the sky dull and hazy. Even the trees looked dry and limp today.
Half-closing his eyes against the dazzle of the sun, Masumi started to turn away, and paused. There was something like a path behind the deities statue. If he looked directly at it, it was lost in the confusion of roots and shrubs and patches of moss, but when he squinted, he could see a way that was clearer than the rest of the forest floor, smoother, a green path winding into greener distance. It was old, like the statue, and faint, so that even when he looked at it sideways, his eye could not follow it far. It looked cool and shady down there, where the path vanished between the trees.
Masumi took a step forward, and night fell.
The sun was gone from the sky, and the air, though still dense and damp, had turned cold. The crickets had fallen silent, their chirping replaced by the scarcely-audible whisper of falling leaves. The vague green path was gone; now he stood on bare earth, little more than a track, but clear, and well-used from the look of it.
He turned back, half-expecting to see daylight behind him, as if the night were just a curtain he could sweep aside. Dark trees crowded close, and when he tried to walk back the way he’d come, he found the undergrowth too thick.
This is ridiculous, he thought. This is heatstroke, or some kind of daydream. I just came this way, and it was midday.
But no daydream could be so vivid, he was sure. No daydream could conjure the chill of sweat cooling on his skin, or the furtive rustle of the trees, as if people were moving stealthily among them. Involuntarily his mind turned to the newspaper article he’d sent to Miyako, and the joke he’d jotted at the top. If I go missing, come and look for me!
He shivered, and told himself it was only because of the cold. He still didn’t believe in haunted villages.
“Anyway, this isn’t a village, just a path,” he said aloud, hoping the sound of his voice might somehow awaken him, and make all this go away. It didn’t, and he didn’t like the way the trees whispered more loudly, as if in response.
Do this rationally, he thought. Don’t panic.
If he couldn’t go back, then he had to go forward. It was dark under the trees, but the path was pale as ash in the moonlight, easy enough to follow. It ran on an upward slope, and he thought he could see light ahead, rusty-red and flickering.
Before long, he came to a torii gate. It was made of old black wood, and stood at an angle, its legs crooked, as if it had been struck by a car or damaged in an earthquake. There hadn’t been a serious earthquake in this region for years, though, only minor tremors.
Beyond the gate, he could see iron braziers burning charcoal, and an odd arrangement of weathered black stones hung with sacred rope and paper.
If I go back now, it’s not real, he thought, absurdly. If I go back now, I never saw this.
But there wasn’t anywhere to go back to, just that lonely, dead-end path and the dark forest. At least here there were signs of people, and light.
He walked through the gate and out onto the hilltop. The braziers sent sparks up into the night sky, and in their untrustworthy glow, the circle of stones seemed to sway and shift. The megaliths that formed the ring were curved inward like huge tusks, and within their protection was a great flat-bottomed boulder. He thought it might be a covering-stone, but what for? Nobody made a well atop a hill, and it was too large and cumbersome to be easily moved.
Masumi knew he was alone here; the whole hilltop had been cleared of trees, and there was nowhere for another man to stand unseen. All the same, he felt watched as he studied the stones.
He touched his pocket to make sure he still had his notebook. If he were to be spirited away like the rest, perhaps he could leave something behind, for anyone who came after.
To the north the land fell away steeply, and cradled in the hollow it made, he could see a small cluster of houses, obscured by the fog. As he looked at them, he began to feel a sort of déjà-vu, as if he’d stood here before, just like this, gazing down on the silent hamlet.
But it was morning then, he thought. The sun was warm.
He shook his head to clear it. He was just disoriented, confused, trying to make sense of a situation that shouldn’t even be possible. Still, the sense of dreamy familiarity remained.
I know this place, his mind insisted. It’s my... it’s...
What it was, he couldn’t say, but he stood there, notebook in hand, looking down for a long time.
Ten days later, Miyako stood as he had, looking down from the hill onto the village. The farthest buildings were no more than shadows in the fog.
Come and look for me, Masumi’s note had said. It was almost as if he’d known what was going to happen.
She could see a candle burning in the window of the nearest house, almost as if somebody still lived there. She didn’t think Masumi had been the one to light it, though.
“Here I am,” she whispered. “I came, like you asked me to.”
From somewhere nearby she could hear the sound of water, and it led her to a bridge constructed of wooden planks and old, rotten-looking rope. The whole thing looked dangerous. She might have tried it anyway, if she had thought this path would lead her to the village, but across the stream she could see only darkness, and rows of thin upright shadows that put her in mind of memorial stones. A cemetery? It was like a riddle. What use was a cemetery when all the villagers were dead?
She turned her back on it, uneasy, and went back up the hill, holding the flashlight tightly. It was a little piece of the outside world – the real world, she thought of it – and its beam of light would protect her.
On the other path she stopped, digging her diary out of her bag. Here would be a good place to leave a note; anyone coming into the village, or trying to leave, would use this path. If Masumi were here, she didn’t want to risk missing him; if he found a way out, she didn’t want to risk him leaving without her, never knowing she was here.
Masumi, she wrote, it’s me, Miyako. I came
Something cold brushed the back of her neck and she whirled, stumbling backwards and landing hard on the packed earth. At first, she only saw the hand outstretched towards her, pale as smoke, a hand made out of fog and shadow. Her throat closed; she couldn’t scream, couldn’t breathe, could only scramble backwards away from the thing that was reaching for her, the woman, the ghost.
The ghost spoke to her.
Miyako didn’t remember getting to her feet and running down the hill. She didn’t remember shoving open the nearest door and falling through it. When she returned to herself, she was crouching on the dirt-floor in the entrance hall, her diary clutched against her chest; she had dropped her bag somewhere on the hillside.
She didn’t shake or sob; her terror was an inward thing, cold and still. She’d felt the village trying to claim her, but she had managed to escape. She was still herself.
For now, she was still herself.
Part Two: Dreams in Ghost-Towns
Everywhere Masumi went, there were candles burning. It was eerie, all these houses standing empty, but with candles still alight inside.
He had circled the village a dozen times or more, he thought, exploring all the houses that were neither locked nor ruined, searching for other paths, trying to glean information from books that fell apart in his hands He had followed the river in both directions, until it became a lake to the north-east and flowed underground in the south. He had walked the village from end to end; his learning told him it ought to be surrounded by farmers’ huts and fields, but he had found nothing, nor any room for such things to exist. He’d listened to the wind blowing through the tunnels under the village, but had not discovered any way to access them, unless he wanted to risk broken bones by jumping into the dry well. And he had slept, in corners and closets of the empty houses – though never for very long.
Because he wasn’t the only one here. He had seen others, slipping round buildings, vanishing behind trees, sliding doors closed. When he called to them they didn’t answer; when he followed them, they were gone. He heard voices sometimes, seeming to come from the next room or around the next bend, but there was never anyone there.
It’s no good, he thought wearily, sitting down on the ruined porch of Tachibana House with a sigh. There’s no way out. I’ve looked everywhere.
But that wasn’t right, and he knew it. He still hadn’t been inside Kurosawa House, and the more he learned, the more he became sure that house was the centre of everything.
There was nothing exactly stopping him going in. He’d opened the grand gates at the end of the Kiryu-Tachibana street, and had even stepped out onto the wooden bridge... but there he had stopped. As he’d looked across the water at the walls of that house rising from the mist, a thought had raced across his mind, too fast to interpret – that’s it, that’s where I – and it had left him uneasy, the way images from dreams will, even when their significance is forgotten.
He felt that house was waiting for him. That was what it came down to. But it was such a vague, ill-defined impression, he couldn’t justify avoiding the house on that basis alone. Besides, a house couldn’t wait. Even in a village where night never ended and people could vanish into an empty room with no other doors, houses were just houses.
So he told himself he just didn’t like the look of that water. It seemed too opaque, too viscous. If he dropped a stone, he thought it would sink under with hardly a sound, only thick oily ripples to show where it had been.
He didn’t like the sounds it made, either. The documents he’d been able to read named this place as Whisper Bridge, and the name was apt. The water murmured and sighed against the struts of the bridge; now it sounded like people talking in low voices, now like weeping, now like the soft choked gasps someone might make as they drowned.
In the end he had turned back, reasoning that there might still be more to explore in the rest of the village; he might not have to enter Kurosawa House at all.
He made up his mind to check Osaka House again. It was the house nearest the edge of the village; it would make sense for the way out to be there. Passing a hand over his itching eyes, he stood up and started down the street again.
Miyako liked the family altar room the best. She didn’t know if ancestral spirits were watching over it – though if there were ancestral spirits anywhere, she thought, they would be here in the Lost Village – but it seemed more peaceful than the other rooms, somehow. Even the melancholy sound of wind blowing behind the altar was almost soothing.
She’d taken the little bunch of dried flowers she’d been using as a bookmark for her diary and put them in an empty vase in the tatami room’s display alcove; she couldn’t pretend they made the place look welcoming, but if Masumi saw them, he’d know she was here.
She’d meant to go looking for him right away, but now she was inside, it was hard to think about leaving again. Outside was where that woman-creature had been, where it had touched her, spoken to her. At least here there were walls, and candles.
If he’s here, I’ll find him, she thought, pressing herself back into a corner and resting her head on her knees. Her eyelids closed all on their own. The village can't be that big. I’ll start looking for him tomorrow. The weeks of waiting for news must have tired her out more than she realised; sleep was starting to creep up around her, black and soft and clinging. I’ll see him again tomorrow, she thought, as she drifted, and, as sleep took her, If there is a tomorrow...
She dreamed of the cemetery. A man was with her, and she thought, Masumi, but it wasn’t him. It was someone she loved, someone she knew well and held dear, but she didn’t know his name, and his face was strange to her.
“Stay here,” he was telling her. “We found one, but the other’s still missing. If she comes back, she’ll come here. Make sure she doesn’t get the crest. I’ll be back soon.”
He ran his hand over her hair, with such a familiar affection that Miyako felt dizzy; she didn’t know this man, yet in her dream, she knew his touch as well as Masumi’s.
A storm was gathering somewhere off in the west, and presently rain began to fall, whispering in the trees. Miyako waited there until the world ended.
Then she walked back in the Darkness, slow, numb, between houses she had grown up with and had never seen before. She entered one, climbed to the upper storey, walked out onto a bridge above the stone-paved street. In the distance there was screaming, but it wouldn’t reach her. She would outrun it.
She jumped from the bridge, into a sea of blood.
Miyako woke with a cry. For a moment there was a terrible pain in her neck, but that was gone as swiftly as it had come.
Her mind wanted to consider the dream, which hadn’t felt like a dream at all. She forced herself not to think of it, mentally reciting poetry she’d memorised at school years ago, lyrics from her favourite songs, scenes from movies. The man’s face kept rising before her eyes, and somehow the sense that she knew him was as disturbing as what had come after.
I was that woman from the hillside, the ghost, the one who –
No. She had to distract herself. She turned her thoughts to Masumi, and the article he’d sent her – she’d read it so many times she could quote whole sections by heart, and she did that now. One who has no doubt the urban legends are true is Shibata Satoko. In 1959, her sister Mariko went into the Minakami forest for a walk, and disappeared. She was never found.
Somewhere in the house, a door opened and closed. Miyako sat frozen, all thoughts swept from her mind. Then she jumped to her feet and ran into the hallway, because whatever ghosts did and didn’t do, she didn’t think they had any need to open doors.
He was in the hearth room, dabbing at the top of one of the candles with a fingertip, his nose almost touching the flame, and she loved that look of fastidious interest on his face, knew it well from all the times she'd watched him taking measurements and drawing up charts and sitting up late studying lines and lines of figures. When he saw her out of the corner of his eye, he started, jumping back with his hands raised as if to ward her off. His eyes widened as he recognised her.
“Miyako?” he said, and she ran to him and her arms went around his neck, and she knew it was going to be all right, because they were together again. She was talking – “I knew I could find you, they called off the search, but I – ” and he was saying, “I kept thinking there was somebody else here, but I could never – ” and ghosts and nightmares seemed a hundred miles away. They’d find the way out and escape together, and she could forget all of this.
At last he stepped back, holding her at arm’s length. “But what are you doing here?”
“I came to look for you."
Masumi shook his head. “You came out here by yourself? What were you thinking? Not that I’m not glad to see you, but Miyako...”
“You said to come and find you.”
“That was just a joke; I didn’t mean – ”
She clenched her fists. “Didn’t you hear me? They called off the search! If I hadn’t come to look for you, you’d have just stayed missing!”
“Oh, that sounds familiar. No one can do the job better than Sudo Miyako, isn’t that right?” His voice softened, and he pulled her to him again, kissing her forehead. “Never mind. You’re here now, and it was brave of you to come. And I am glad to see you. So glad.”
She drew in a deep breath, inhaling the familiar scents of grass and sweat and the outdoors from his shirt, and made herself relax. After so many days of sleeplessness and worry, it would be easy to lose her temper at nothing, but she wasn’t going to make things worse by starting an argument. “Have you found any sign of a way out? The path into the village isn’t there any more.” She didn’t mention the ghost woman on the hillside. She didn’t want to be the first to broach that topic, and in any case, she reasoned, it would only complicate things.
“Nothing,” he said, “not yet at least, but there are tunnels underneath the village, and I think they’re our best chance. I’ve been looking for an entrance to the underground; nothing so far, but I’ve only been here a day or so.”
That pulled her up short. “It’s been longer than that,” she said. The day she had entered the village had been the day after they called off the search, eleven days after Masumi had disappeared.
“Oh?” he said airily, seeming not to notice her expression. “It’s hard to tell when the sun never rises. Anyway, I’m sure the tunnels will be our way out. They seem to connect all the houses in the village to some important place, and if I can find it...” He looked at her face and frowned. “You look exhausted. You should rest. I’ll stay with you; exploring isn’t getting me anywhere, but I think I saw some books lying around in here, and one of them might say something about the tunnels.”
She tried to protest – he’d been here longer, he needed rest more – but she was tired, and the idea of resting while he watched over her was very tempting. She hadn’t really felt safe since he’d gone missing.
“Okay,” she said. “I’d like that.”
They went to the room upstairs, where Miyako had seen a bookcase. As he ran a finger along the spines of the books, scanning for something that looked relevant, she asked,
“While you’ve been here, have you... have you seen anything strange?”
“Nothing really,” he said in an absent tone. “The candles burning, that’s a little odd, and I kept thinking I saw somebody, but... I probably just imagined that. It’s a spooky place. The mind plays tricks.”
He was trying to convince himself nothing was wrong in this village, and lies wouldn’t help them, but she was no better, trying to pretend her dream hadn't been...
If Masumi can find a way out, it won’t matter, she told herself. He would look through the books, and she would rest awhile, and everything would be all right, because they were together. She pillowed her head against her arm, and closed her eyes.
She was little again, dressed up in her nicest clothes. She and her younger brother and his best friend were playing hide-and-seek; all the grown-ups were in Kurosawa House, so they had the run of the village, and it was the best game ever. Even the rumbling of the earth added a delicious sort of danger.
She hid behind a hanging kimono. It wasn’t a very good place, but she wanted to be “it” next. Hiding was boring; seeking was fun.
She crouched, waiting. It was so quiet. They really should have found her by now. Was it darker than before? How long had she been waiting now? It felt like forever. The festival would be over soon, and then they’d have to stop playing, and she wanted another go at being “it” first.
Was there somebody else in the room? She peeked out from behind the kimono. She couldn’t see anyone, but there were corners out of view, and shadows. She was sure she’d heard someone move.
She didn’t like it up here any more. There was a soft, continuous sound, like breathing, and the room was too dark, too... not-empty. But she wouldn’t leave her hiding-place – the boys would say she was scared because she was a girl, and then they’d laugh and she’d feel stupid. She was going to wait here until they found her, even if she was sure there was someone else here with her. Crouched in one of those shadowy corners. Creeping closer.
She covered her face with her hands and screwed her eyes up tight. She wasn’t a scaredy little girl, she wasn’t, she was as brave as the boys.
Find me soon, she prayed. Please, somebody, find me!
Across the room, Miyako moaned in her sleep. Masumi thought briefly about waking her, and decided against it. Even restless sleep was better than none, and besides, he wanted to concentrate on the books he’d found.
It was funny. He’d never much liked books; he liked being outside, walking wild paths and taming them with measurements. Mathematics were his strong point; he took decent notes, but on the whole, words on paper didn’t hold much interest for him.
But these books... somehow they felt like friends he hadn’t seen in years. Looking at the shelves full of them gave him a sense of pleasant anticipation, knowing that all sorts of fascinating things might be waiting there to be discovered. The only thing better was selecting one of the books almost at random and beginning to read.
The books weren’t in any kind of order. The scientific part of him found that irritating, but another part was actually excited. Who could say what might be in those jumbled volumes? One might be an account of harvests and taxes, one a plan of a building now in ruins, another a history of one of the village’s founding families, and yet another, perhaps crammed in between birth records or half-hidden at the back of the shelf, might tell him more about those intriguing tunnels, and that would bring him nearer to the village’s secret heart. He could follow this trail through books that no one had opened in years, and when he found the answer, what could be more satisfying?
Miyako moaned again, and Masumi started. For a moment there he hadn’t felt like himself at all. He must be very tired. He looked down again at the book he’d been reading, and grunted with exasperation. It was worthless! What use was a list of repairs done on Osaka House two centuries ago? What had he been thinking of, reading something like that so keenly when Miyako was relying on him to find a way out of here?
But maybe there was something useful after all. He looked again, and found it: Sixth month, repair to sliding wall, family altar. Mechanism jammed. Supervised by Osaka Kenzou.
Masumi had been in the family altar room, but had noticed no sliding wall. It was worth a look.
He took the torch Miyako had brought with her. She was quiet again now, though her sleeping face was troubled by a slight frown. He wished he could smooth it away.
Get her out of this village, he told himself. That’s how to help her. As he descended the stairs, his hand closed around the ring in his pocket, the one he’d been carrying around for a fortnight. Once they were out, he’d give it to her, no more putting it off.
There was definitely something off about the family altar room. He wondered how he had failed to notice it before. He could hear the wind moving behind that wall, and when he stood close to it, he felt cool air on his face, smelling of stone and dry dust.
“This must be it!” he said, speaking aloud in his excitement. He and Miyako would soon be home, he knew it.
But the wall wouldn’t budge. It was obviously supposed to move: now he was looking, he could see the runners in floor and ceiling, the join where it would slide back on itself. Still, no matter how he tugged and heaved and shook at it, it stayed stubbornly shut.
So close, he thought, choking back frustration. There had to be a key somewhere, or an unlocking device. They’d want to keep it nearby. He cast about the room, looking for the likeliest place, and something happened then. A shift in his perception, or a change in the room, or something even less definable; suddenly, he wasn’t alone any more.
A man sat at the table, writing in a book. From the way he would tilt his head, Masumi could tell he was also listening to the wind behind the wall. He put his notebook away in one of the drawers, and then lifted something to his face. A camera? A spyglass? Masumi couldn’t see it clearly, but he knew it was something like that.
There was a flash of light, and now Masumi could see the wall standing open, even though he knew it was closed. The stranger put the device away with the notebook, turned and, for just a moment, met Masumi’s eyes. Then he went through the wall.
Masumi stood still, mouth hanging open. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before; he didn’t know if it had been a vision, an apparition or some kind of waking dream. The man had been pale and insubstatial, but he had seen Masumi. It was as if he had put his notebook away in the drawer so that Masumi would see him doing it, and find it there afterwards.
So Masumi started to search the drawers, slowly at first, but when he found nothing but rotten clothes and brown globs that had once been incense and more useless books, their pages black with mould, he started to lose his patience. He forgot about care, forgot about order. He pulled the drawers out and turned them upside-down, scattering unrecognisable rubbish on the floor. He knocked over mortuary tablets feeling round the altar for anything that could be moved, depressed or opened. Nothing. He turned, meaning to try and open the wall by force again, and paused.
The book was on the table. Had it been there before? Surely he would have seen it. Had it fallen from one of the drawers he’d ransacked? But it sat so neatly on the tabletop, as if the scholar had put it there for him to find.
He knelt, the sliding wall forgotten, and picked up the book. “Camera Obscura Pointers,” he read aloud, his eyes moving to the bottom of the page. “Makabe Seijiro.” He ran his thumb over the name, feeling the paper’s brittleness and age. As he did he seemed to see the man again, head bent over the page, writing. He wrote about the tunnels, but also about twins, about rituals, about the secrets of the village. Then he stood and went... where? Back to the ceremony master’s house, of course. Back to the centre from which everything else emanated.
Masumi didn’t want to go there. He still remembered how he’d felt, standing on the bridge, just looking at the place. If Kurosawa House was the spiritual centre of the village, it stood to reason that the worst of the danger and darkness would be there. He wanted to avoid going inside it if possible.
But if he was right, that was where Makabe was trying to lead him. It made sense that they would keep all the significant information there, out of reach of the rest of the village. He couldn’t hope to achieve much without even looking at the place.
He was still trying to make his mind up when Miyako started screaming.
There were hands on her shoulders, shaking her, hands ready to close around her throat. She fought as hard as she could. Don’t kill me, she thought, struggling, don’t kill me! She must have said it, too, because a voice was saying it’s all right, it’s me, I won’t hurt you, calling her by a name she didn’t know. Who was Miyako? Who was she? It seemed she had a hundred names, all written in blood. She looked up at the man’s face, and for a long time she didn’t recognise him at all.
Then it began to come back to her. She was Miyako after all. She thought she was, anyway. The stranger was Masumi, not a stranger at all.
She put her hands to her head, as if she might be able to sift through the alien thoughts and get to her own. “Horrible,” she said. “Horrible.”
“What is?” Masumi asked.
She didn’t answer. These dreams were not dreams. She’d been the woman in the cemetery, the little girl hiding, another girl begging for her life while hands cut off her air, a woman who jumped from the top of a staircase and died slowly at the bottom, her legs broken. Miyako’s own knees throbbed with the agony the other woman had felt. When she tried to move, the pain was blinding.
“I don’t want to sleep any more,” she said. Her voice was hoarse from screaming. “They’re not dreams, they’re not mine – don’t let me sleep any more, please.” When would her leg stop hurting? It wasn’t her pain; why should she have to feel it?
Masumi gazed at her, his brow furrowed with concern. He put his hand in his pocket as if to check something was still there, and seemed to come to a decision.
“There’s one place I haven’t explored yet,” he said. “Kurosawa House was where the ceremony master lived, and I’m sure there’ll be something there to tell us how to get out. Let’s go and look.”
She shook her head. “I can’t. I can’t move right now.” She tried to smile through the pain. “You go. I’ll be okay. I just want to get out of here as soon as possible.”
“I don’t like to leave you alone.”
She touched his cheek, trying to make him understand. “If you leave it much longer, I don’t think I’ll be strong enough to go, even if you help me.”
He met her eyes, his mouth a thin line, then nodded. “Okay. You wait. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He kissed her softly. She remembered that. He had at least kissed her before he left.
Then he was gone. She heard him going down the stairs, across the hearth room, out of the door, away.
Miyako stretched out her legs to make them hurt less, then settled back to wait. And keep herself awake.
Part Three: Insomnia
Masumi was wishing for the torch as he crossed the wooden bridge to the Kurosawa House. He’d dropped it, along with the book by Makabe, when Miyako started screaming. Out here it was dark and misty; he didn’t trust the planks beneath his feet, and he didn’t like hearing the whisper of the water without being able to see it. At about the halfway point, he thought he heard something splashing, or diving, or drowning, but no matter how he stared into the darkness, he could see nothing.
Cold, he thought distantly. The water would be cold. And it would hold onto you. It would try to drag you under.
The gates of the Kurosawa House were old wood, and sturdy, like the gates to the bridge, but they opened easily, almost silently. Beyond was a courtyard, neat, as if servants were still tending it. Stone lanterns gave light in the gloom, and flowering quinces dropped red blossoms like confetti on the ground. Masumi stooped to pick one of these up. It looked as fresh and bright as if it had fallen moments ago, but it felt like old paper, and when he closed his hand over it, it crumbled into a soft scarlet dust, as if it had been nothing but the memory of colour. He wondered whether the tree was still alive, or whether it was only a ghost-tree, waiting, like the rest of the village, for the sun to rise.
It was darker still inside Kurosawa House, and Masumi stood in the entrance a moment, waiting to see if his eyes would adjust. The door banged shut behind him with a very final sound. When he tugged on it again, it wouldn’t open.
This is it. I’m in for good.
The hanging curtain brushed his face like cobwebs. Diffuse light seeped through a round window with a paper screen at the other end of the hall. There were two doors; one was locked, but the other opened. The air smelled different in here. Under the odour of damp wood, rotting mats and mouldy cloth, Masumi could smell other things, more unsettling: earth and stone, a sweet decaying smell, and something rich and mineral that made him think of blood.
Somewhere, deeper inside the house, something let out a high, chattering howl, neither human nor animal to Masumi’s ears. He stopped with his hand on the door, nerves electric, sweat breaking out on his forehead. In the silence, another voice moaned in pain or terror. It sounded very close.
Every sensible part of him screamed to run, get out, get far away from this place, but he thought of Miyako and the wan, worn-out smile she’d tried to give him before he left. She wouldn’t be able to take much more of this. He had to press on. He closed one hand over the ring in his pocket, which was warmed to the temperature of his body by now, and opened the door.
The metallic smell, the one his mind kept trying to identify as blood, was even stronger in this corridor, and Masumi gagged. He vaguely remembered that the article he had cut out for Miyako had mentioned something about a massacre, but he didn’t let himself complete that thought. It would only make him want to turn back again, and he couldn’t turn back. He held the ring so tightly it would probably be bent out of shape by the end of this, but it helped him strengthen his resolve once more.
That jittering, inhuman scream sounded again, and it was closer now, close enough that he could recognise it for what it was. Gooseflesh broke out on his arms. Who could be laughing in a place like this? Who, except someone out of their mind?
The hallway turned a right-angle, back into the inner darkness of the house. It was only the memory of Miyako’s ghastly attempt to smile that kept him placing one foot in front of the other. His chest was tight with fear, his mouth dry and sour. There was only one door, only one way to go, but oh, he didn’t want to, didn’t want to see what was in there. His heartbeat was a thunder in his ears. He slid the door open.
The smell of blood leaped out at him, caught like a clot in the back of his throat, and he doubled over, retching. At the same time, he saw another of those visions, or whatever they were, as much in his mind as before his eyes.
A family sat around a hearth, talking, eating from lacquered bowls. He saw twin girls, a boy on the verge of manhood, and two middle-aged men. One was the man he’d seen in the altar room of the Osaka House.
Makabe, he thought, and the man glanced up as if he’d heard. Lightning shattered the scene into a puzzle made of light and shadow, changing everything. The other man’s face became a skull, empty eye-sockets, grinning teeth; one of the girls vanished into darkness, and the other became an old woman, her features white and stark; and Makabe was a wraith, trailing blood-soaked rags, his hair a shock around his ravaged face. None of the people at the hearth seemed to notice this. None of them realised that they were eating their meal in a hall saturated with blood.
Masumi straightened, backed away and hit the door. Somehow in the midst of all this he’d entered the room, and the door had slid shut behind him. The little gathering was gone, but the blood remained.
Something like smoke was rising from the cold ashes in the hearth. But it wasn’t smoke. It trailed torn clothes and frayed ropes. Once it had been human; now its face was a mocking emptiness, where humanity had been scraped away to make room for madness. Yet he recognised the features, ruined as they were: it was Makabe, or it had been. He couldn’t imagine what had been done to make the man look like this. Now Masumi knew what it was that had been calling out to him since he entered the village, and now he knew why he hadn’t wanted to follow its call. The lesson it had to teach was the one he had sensed since he entered: those who sought to discover the secrets of the village died.
He didn’t think about where he was running to, only knew he had to get away from that one reaching arm. He found himself in a closet and knew, too late, there was nowhere he could hide from that thing. He turned to face the oncoming monster, falling backwards, raising his arm as if that could save him. His other hand found the ring in his pocket. Miyako, I’m sorry, I was wrong, forgive me...
The horror that had been Makabe loomed over him, and brought its arm down in a slashing motion. Lightning flared again behind Masumi’s eyes, and this time, when the thunder came, it went on and on.
Miyako sat upstairs in the Osaka House, not sleeping. There was a technique to it, she had discovered. Even when you were blinded by weariness, even when you had to sit still in one place without moving, there were ways. The walls didn’t sleep; neither did the beams, or the doors, or the stairs. She would just be like them.
Her consciousness seeped through the materials of the house like water through unseen crevices. She felt the passages in the wood where woodworm and termite had burrowed through, although there were none now. They had all died. Mould survived, somehow, like the trees in the dark forest; things that did not sleep survived.
Miyako came to understand this as she sat with the house around her. Sleepless things learned to be themselves. Even in this eternal darkness, the timbers of the house were what they had always been. She could be like that, if only she could shake off the weakness that made her eyelids fall shut against her will.
She felt, rather than heard, Masumi enter the house. It took her a few moments to rise from her reverie enough to understand what that meant.
She tested her legs, and found she could move without pain again. She stood up slowly, feeling stiff and rigid, more like wood than flesh. But that had just been some sort of waking dream brought on by fatigue, and it didn’t matter now. If Masumi was back, that must mean he’d found a way out.
“Masumi?” She went out onto the landing that overlooked the hearth room, but there was nobody there. “Masumi? Where are you?”
She thought she saw movement out of the corner of her eye: the curtains at the entrance to the dirt-floor passage were shivering, as if something had passed through. She descended the stairs carefully, wishing for a banister, and brushed the curtains aside. “Masumi?” For an instant, she thought she saw him at the far end of the hall. Then he wasn’t there any more.
“Masumi, where did you go?”
She didn’t understand why he wouldn’t come to her straight away, or why he would walk away from her when she was calling out to him. Perhaps he hadn’t found the way out of the village and didn’t want to tell her... but even then, it would be better if they were together. Everything would be. She still believed that.
She found him in the back room, standing on the deck, his body hunched. There was something peculiar about him, or about the way he was standing, but she couldn’t tell what, and the light didn’t seem to make anything clearer. It was as if he stood in his own shadow.
“Masumi,” she said, “why...”
“Don’t come near me,” he hissed.
“What? Oh – ” She saw the blood then. His shirt was in tatters. “Oh, you’re hurt! What happened? Let me – ”
“Don’t,” he said, his voice thick and guttural, like an animal’s snarl. “Don’t come near me.”
Does he sleep? her brain chattered nonsensically. Does he sleep now? Does he sleep?
“Masumi,” she said again. She was afraid, but she made herself take another step towards him. He had tried to protect her; he had injured himself trying to save her life; he had said she was brave, and she meant to be. “Tell me what’s wrong. Let me help. At least if we’re together – ”
She put her hand on his arm, and only had time to register how cold it was before he turned on her.
She was warm. He could feel the warmth of her body and it drove him into a frenzy. How did she dare to be so warm when he was not?
He had let the ring fall into the pool of blood. He had kept it warm all this time, but now it was cold again. All he had to give her was the cold, and he gave it, his hands around her neck.
“Why?” she asked with her voice, and kept asking somewhere in his mind when she had no breath left. Why?
When she was cold too, he could let her alone. He turned from her. All the doors were unlocked to him now, and all the ways were open, except the way out.
He thought about that for a while. It had become difficult to think. The ideas he tried to consider kept falling apart in formless hatred, disgust, rage, longing. Still, if he concentrated, he could just remember how this had started: a stone statue with the sun shining on it.
That made him wish he had Miyako to kill again, because the memory of the sun filled him with a fury that needed violent expression. But maybe that was just a dream, he thought, and that calmed him. If everything before had been a dream, he had lost nothing.
Still, if he really tried, he could think back further, to when there had been sunlight and heat enough to make him crave the cold. He could just remember who he had been back then, a man walking lost trails in a forest they were about to drown.
Yes. That was it. Out there, in that unimaginable sunlit world, there was a wall of water waiting to crash down on this valley, to swallow the unnatural Darkness with a natural one. He could wait for that, even if he didn’t remember it all the time. He could wait for the flood to obliterate all of this. It might even be peaceful, under the water. It might even be warm.