It was Kirie's best kimono, the one with yellow flowers, the one that made her think of summer, even though it was thickly-padded for winter. She was drinking it in with her eyes, distracted, so she didn't hear everything her mother said about the house they were going to, or the reason, only that she had to be on her best behaviour when they arrived and do everything anybody told her, even strangers. These things she heard because her mother repeated them several times, but she was more interested in the rich feel of the padded silk as her mother tied the obi.
Everyone was in their best, and the family made quite a procession as they left, Kirie thought. They were joined a little farther on by her cousins Kaede and Naoko and their families, all dressed up as well, and in between admiring one another, the girls did manage to discuss their destination a little, and the purpose of the trip.
'It's kind of... a festival?' Naoko said doubtfully. 'Everyone has to go to the Himuro Mansion, especially girls.'
'It's every ten years,' Kaede said. She was nine and therefore more knowledgeable. 'It's to worship the Five Gods. There are five shrines, and Himuro Mansion is the centre one, so it's the most important.'
After that, they couldn't speak much. The roads in November were muddy, and everyone had to concentrate on walking carefully so as not to get their beautiful clothes dirty. Some people in their party were riding in palanquins, but Kirie's parents weren't rich or important enough for that.
Kirie was so busy watching where she walked that she didn't realise they were almost there until she happened to look up and the mansion was ahead, the most imposing building she had ever seen. The mud here was churned by many feet, and she could hear voices from inside.
The entrance hall was just as busy, with people removing their outdoor shoes, and what seemed like dozens of servants milling around. As Kirie was gazing around, one of the servants took her arm without speaking and led her away from her parents, through a dark corridor lined with strange, hanging ropes tied to beams; Kirie remembered what her mother had said about doing what she was told, and followed obediently, though the servant walked fast.
They came to another room, and there the servant deposited Kirie and left. There were several other girls here, including Naoko and Kaede, and three men with white robes and tall black hats stood against the back wall with their arms folded. They looked like priests.
It was a partitioned tatami room with many screens, very grand indeed; Kirie had never seen a single room so large. A few candles flickered at intervals, but the corners were dark, and the shadows wavered in the uncertain light as if they were moving. The sliding screens at the end of the room were closed, hiding the last section.
Servants kept returning with more little girls, dressed in fine clothes. Some of them Kirie recognised as cousins she had met once or twice, while others were strangers to her, but as she looked around she saw certain similar features echoing in the different faces, from which she guessed they were all related.
Whenever any of the girls dared speak, the priests gave them such stern looks that before long everybody was completely silent. Now the servants were not departing immediately, but had started to line up along the wall with the priests. They were blocking the door back into the rope hallway.
All was silent for a while, except for the soft scuffling of nervous children as they all fidgeted, looked around at each other and at the inscrutable priests. The room only seemed to grow darker. They could hear people talking somewhere else in the mansion, where all the adults must be gathered, but it was muffled, too far away to be of any comfort.
At the far end of the room, concealed by the sliding screen, there came the sound of a door opening and then closing again.
There was a long silence. Kirie could feel the girl next to her trembling slightly, like a nervous animal. The sound of heavy, pained breathing was coming from somewhere, and at first Kirie thought it was one of the other girls, but when she looked around, everyone was as quiet as her.
Something shook the closed sliding screens at the end of the room. The girl beside Kirie jumped violently. There came a dragging, then a scrabbling noise, like fingernails, and one of the screens began to open, slowly.
Even before anyone was in sight, Kirie knew it was a woman; she knew things like that, sometimes, though she didn't talk about it to anybody. And she knew that her cousin Naoko, standing behind her, was going to break and run forward, pushing Kirie in front, and when she did, that woman...
While the other girls were still frozen, Kirie sidled over to one corner. She half expected one of the priests to stop her, but they didn't. She saw the woman come out from behind the screens, shuffling with her arms held out in front of her, and pressed herself into the corner. She knew this must be a nightmare. The woman had no eyes; she just had holes, and blood poured from them.
The other children were starting to make noises of terror, one of them crying, and Naoko bolted, as Kirie had known she would, rushing forward and trying to slip past the blinded woman. Swerving, the woman snatched her, grabbing first her sleeve and then her arms. Naoko's screams were enough to make Kirie want to cover her ears, but she didn't move.
There was a stirring from behind, and one of the priests came forward, taking Naoko by the arm. Kirie could see blood on Naoko's sleeve; it had come from the woman's hands.
The blinded woman seized the arm of one of the priests, and he brushed her off curtly. Something about that gesture, the naked unkindness of it, touched Kirie. It was hard to quell the childish panic that welled up in her throat and resonated through her mind from the other children, but something in her shifted, and if she was still frightened of the blind woman, she felt sorry for her too. It wasn't her fault she had no eyes. Somebody had hurt her, and that was the scary thing.
She looked again at the two priests who were still standing against the back wall, watching. They didn't intervene to comfort the children, or to help the suffering woman. You were supposed to help people who had been hurt, yet the priests just stood there.
Another round of shrill screaming made her look back: another child had been caught. Most of them were moving now, trying to escape through the door in the back, the one that wasn't blocked. Only Kirie stayed in her corner. One of the servants came forward to take the latest girl caught, and led her out into the rope hallway again.
It was a game of Demon Tag; Kirie knew enough to recognise it, although the way she and her friends played, you were supposed to hide, and only run when you thought the demon was going to find you. Kirie was always best at it, because most of the time she just knew where her friends were hiding, and where they were going to run. And she was good at hiding, too, being very quiet and still, until she felt like part of her surroundings, like a smooth piece of wood or a shadow beneath a hanging willow.
She sank into a crouch, making herself small, small enough to fit into the very smallest corner of the room. One by one, the other girls were caught and escorted out by the servants, until it was only Kirie left, and the two priests, who had not yet stirred, and the wounded woman who stood alone in the middle of the room, her hands limp by her sides.
It's my turn to be caught, thought Kirie. She wasn't going to be like the others, screaming and struggling and running away. She stood up and started to cross the room; the woman turned towards the sound and reached out to seize her. Kirie reached out too, and took her hands.
'Help me,' the woman said, thinking she had a friend. 'My eyes... my eyes are... please – '
Kirie felt someone taking her by the shoulders, pulling her away. She tightened her grip on the blinded woman's hands for a moment, then released them. The priests were guiding her towards the door at the back of the room. Naoko had been brought this way, too: it wasn't the door back to the corridor with the ropes, but led deeper into the mansion, away from the sound of the adults gathered enjoying themselves.
She was never going to see her parents again. She was certain of it, suddenly, just as she'd been certain it was a woman behind the screens.
For a moment she stopped dead and planted her feet, ready to struggle against the priests' grip, but she remembered how her mother had told her to behave, to be obedient. She wouldn't have said that if there was a possibility that Kirie might be taken away from her, would she? Of course not.
Besides, priests were trustworthy, even if they weren't always kind. They weren't going to keep her from seeing her parents again; the thought was ridiculous. She would do as they said.
She glanced back once, and saw that the blinded woman had wilted to the floor, her unkempt hair falling over her face, her hands upturned at her sides.
Kirie saw – felt, for a moment, as if the hands were hers – the blood drying in the creases on her palms, the blood that had flowed down her cheeks like tears. Her eyes were gone, and all rooms were dark.
Kirie looked away again, troubled. The priests led her on, each with a hand on her shoulder, not rushing her, but never allowing her to stop. It was very quiet in this part of the house. Kirie and the priests went through a room with a table of candles and funeral tablets, and a yard where a cherry tree was leafless for winter, skeletal against the sky; Kirie saw some Torii gates and a little shrine, but the priests went too fast to let her look properly.
As they went, she tried to catch a glimpse of Naoko, wherever she might be, but there was nobody in this part of the house at all.
There were some stairs next, and a little door she had to lower her head to get through – the priests were nearly bent double – and in this room was a wooden cell with an even smaller door. It looked like a prison. One of the priests opened the door and the other nudged Kirie inside.
Inside the cell was a bookcase, a little writing desk with a cushion, and a window high up, with bars on it but no screen to keep the draughts out, or the rain, or the snow. It was cold.
'Kneel there,' one of the priests said, indicating the space underneath the window. Kirie knelt, trying to work up the courage to ask why she was here; mother said it wasn't polite to question your elders when they told you to do something.
When she was kneeling – she knew how to sit upright for a long time, her parents were proud of how she could do that – the priests each took one of the sacred ropes that trailed from the walls on either side, and tied the ropes around her wrists. Kirie watched them do it. Their hands were very gentle, deftly tying the knots so that they weren't too tight, and yet they seemed not to want to touch her, and tried to avoid all contact with her wrists as they did it.
'Is my mother coming here?' Kirie managed to ask.
One of the priests glanced up at her and looked quickly away; the other acted as though he hadn't heard. Neither answered. When her hands were securely bound, they left her. She could hear their footsteps as they walked away; she counted the stairs as they went down them, and faintly heard the creak of the door when they went out into the courtyard with the leafless cherry tree. After that she heard nothing.
She stayed still for a long time, wondering when the priests would come and take her back to her parents. She wanted them to come back and laugh at her, and say what a good, obedient girl she was for sitting still all that long time. But one of her feet had started to go numb, and her back hurt from being held so stiffly, and the cold air from the window had chilled the back of her neck. She was getting hungry, too.
All the same, she remained motionless, listening hard for the sound of anybody approaching her room. There was another door; she could just about see it from her corner, and she wondered what was on the other side.
It was getting dark now, and still nobody came. This part of the house had to be very far from the rest; somewhere, she knew, her parents and everyone else in the Himuro family were gathered, talking, drinking, telling jokes and laughing and playing children's games, the way adults did when they drank sake. They would be making a lot of noise, but she couldn't hear anything. The silence here was profound.
She thought of the blinded woman again. Why would priests want a woman with her eyes gouged out to play demon tag with a group of frightened little girls? What purpose did that serve? But thinking about it was frightening, too, and as evening drew on, shadows seeped from the wood and tatami and began to grow, filling the room like the cool smell of night, and she didn't want to think of frightening things in this gloomy, isolated place.
She yawned. Her head was sinking forward onto her chest. She looked around vaguely for a futon, wondering whether she was to sleep here or whether they'd come to untie her and let her out of the cell to sleep elsewhere.
But nobody came. She thought they must have forgotten her. After a while, cold, stiff and wondering, Kirie settled herself against the bookshelf, the rope pulling a little tighter on her wrist as she did. She fell asleep there, and was undisturbed all night long.
After that night in November, it would be ten years before she was permitted to sleep in another room. It would be five years before she was even allowed to leave the cell, and by then she had all but forgotten the rest of the world.
It was November again. Although this part of the house was still secluded and quiet, Kirie had grown much more sensitive to changes in the atmosphere, and she could tell something important was happening. The priests did their duties even more briskly than usual, and there was a hum of activity that would only be observed by someone intimately familiar with the normal rhythm of the household.
She wanted to be part of it. If there were people out there, new faces, she wanted to go and meet them. None of them would be the face she wanted to see, the guest who was gone, but now that she knew what it was like to have company, the hours she had to spend alone were endless, unbearable.
In the afternoon, a priest came for her. She wasn't bound any more, and he did not take her arm as he had done when she was a little girl; he only had to gesture, and she followed him without question. The room he led her to had dolls on shelves, a folding screen; it seemed warm and rich after the cell.
'This is where you'll stay now,' the priest said. 'Today we choose the next Rope Shrine Maiden; her isolation begins this evening.'
Another little girl, brought without explanation to that lonely cell and left there to forget her parents' faces, the names of flowers, and everything in the world but duty and death.
The guest's face came into her mind, the way it had looked in her dream last night, so sorrowful, pleading, accusing. The priest was gone, and Kirie covered her face with her hands.
Later she heard people passing nearby. She recognised the priests' footfalls, and in between them wove the quick light patter of a child, following.
It was late at night when she woke up again and realised something she had not consciously noticed before: the priest had not locked the door behind him.
Kirie never thought of escape. She didn't want to die, but to leave would be unthinkable: even if her duty didn't rest here, she could scarcely remember anything outside the mansion. She couldn't imagine stepping out of the grounds; her mind simply would not form the images.
She only wanted to be under the open sky one last time. The cherry blossoms might be gone now, and the young man might be dead, but the air would still taste sweet.
She left the room and slipped down the stairs. She couldn't hear the sounds of all the family members gathered in rooms elsewhere, but she felt them, all the same, the unquietness spreading like ripples in water.
None of them remembered her, she supposed; none of them knew she was here. How lonely that was.
The wooden deck in the atrium creaked under her feet, but when she stepped out onto the earth, in the frosty moonlight, everything breathed silence. There was a purity to winter that never came at any other time of year, a white austerity, clear and stern and dead. The names of flowers did not matter; all of them had withered away and left bare earth behind. That was what duty felt like.
She turned, because there was somebody on the deck behind. The woman shuffled anxiously, arms out in front of her, mouth hanging open in despair. She had no eyes, only wells of darkness and blood.
A memory glared suddenly, white as moonlight: children in the grand hall, screaming, running from a blinded woman who snatched at them as if they could help her.
This wasn't the same woman. She wore purple, and her voice was different. 'It's so dark,' she said, not knowing anyone was there, lamenting it to nobody but herself. 'It's so dark...'
It had been ten years, and since then Kirie had forgotten nearly everything, but certain things occasionally rose to the surface, like bubbles in the drowning pool of her memory. She recognised her cousin Naoko.
This time she did not wonder who had done it. She knew all that, and she knew, as well, where this poor woman had come from, and what task she had been chosen to perform. The Blind Demon's job was to identify her own successor, and the next Rope Shrine Maiden; that was all, and for that, she had been blinded. Her duty was over now, but she was still here, wandering, lost.
Kirie went over, holding out her own hands to meet the ones the woman extended. When someone was hurt, you were supposed to help them.
Naoko didn't ask who was there. She only responded to the kindness of it. 'It's dark,' she said, closing her fingers around Kirie's. 'Nobody's here, and it's so dark.'
Kirie looked at the brilliant moon, the crackling stars, the blue-white stone. She could see very clearly.
Later, the priest found them sitting on the steps, holding hands like children. Kirie thought he would be angry and admonish her, but he only looked sad. He took Naoko by the arm, far more gently than any of the priests had done to that other blinded woman ten years ago.
'Go back to your room, Kirie,' he said. He sounded stiff and uncomfortable. If Naoko recognised the name of the cousin she hadn't seen in ten years, she showed no sign of it.
Kirie stood up. 'What will happen to her?'
'That is none of your concern. Concentrate on your own duty.'
Again, the moonlight, pitiless, pure. She wanted sunlight, soft petals falling, the names of flowers, the warmth of the visitor's voice; instead she had duty, and her cousin had darkness.
'Goodbye,' she said, to Naoko, to the sky, to memory. She had to let it all fall away. There were quiet rooms waiting for her, and after, ropes.