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Five Times Shakuyaku Might Have Died

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1.

"Mother," she croaks, "I'm hot."

"I know, dear." Through a feverish haze, she watches as her mother squeezes the cloth, before stretching it to its full length - folds it once, twice, three times, and places it on her forehead. It is cool and damp against her skin, but for a moment, Shakuyaku wonders if she imagined her mother leaning a little too far forward, the cloth held between her hands as if to smother her with it.

 

2.

It hurts, oh gods, it hurts, it hurts so much and she needs air but there's only water and she's choking she can't breathe can't breathe it hurts it hurts it hurts

The hands holding her down suddenly vanish and she bursts through the surface with a gasp and chokes, flails wildly and finds herself clawing at dirt. She collapses where she is and doesn't move, unable to do anything but take sobbing, heaving breaths like a fish. She is shaking terribly. She's so cold. Around her is commotion, but everything is muffled through the water clogging her ears.

"What -- thinking?! Can you imagine -- if that had gone on any longer?! -- very least -- do it away from here -- might have poisoned the rice --"

 

3.

She can see metal glinting through the window.

"Our boys could be dying, and it's all that witch's fault! She's clearly possessed, or could be a demon walking among us! Why do you insist on protecting that thing?!"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry ..."

She pulls the blanket closer around her shivering shoulders and tries to stop her teeth from chattering.

An eternity later, the angry voices and crackling of fire and metallic flashes are gone. Her parents come back inside, where she is huddled in the corner, green eyes wide. Her mother walks over and kneels down; strokes her hair once, twice. Her father remains at the door.

There's no light in the room, but even in the darkness, they look old and worn. She wonders what faces they are making.

 

4.

A part of her is surprised at her father's strength as he fists her hair. She is taller than he is now, but it's hard to remember that when she's sitting down and he's towering above her. Her head hurts and her eyes threaten to tear up, but instead she stares at the knife in his hand. Her mother makes a sound but doesn't move from where she's seated.

Shakuyaku's gaze slowly trails up his arm until she is looking her father in the face.

"Father," she says.

After a moment, he lets go, drops the knife on the table and walks out the door.

 

5.

She finds the rope when looking for a basket, coiled inside one of the larger ones. She picks up a length of it and studies it, running a finger along the strands. She imagines taking it with her, finding the right branch, tying the rope to it, the rope taut around her neck ...

Outside the door, her mother coughs, then continues washing what little rice they have left.

She puts the rope back, finds the basket she is looking for, and walks to the mountains. She remembers a good patch of vegetables that she found the last time she was there, and today, she manages to fill her basket with little trouble. The sky hasn't even started to darken when she makes it back to the village.

Just beyond the houses, on the road, she finds her father bowing excitedly to a monk, whose face is shadowed by his rice hat. They see her a moment after she sees them. The monk hands something to her father and turns to her.

"Come here." He beckons with his hand. "I'll give you the thing you want."

Her father hasn't moved. He is fingering - counting - what the monk had given him: strings of mon, more than she has ever seen before. It's not long until he seems to give up and just stares in awe at the wealth in his hands.

"Father," she calls out.

He glances at her once, clutching the coins to himself. Then he turns and walks into the village.

Oh.

She looks down at her basket, full of greens. She thinks about her hands, dirty from digging in soil for hours. She remembers her mother stroking her hair. Her mother teaching her how to weave baskets. Her mother teaching her to cook. Lying on her futon and listening to her mother cry herself to sleep. Her parents grovelling and uttering apology after apology to a mob of angry men. Jeers and taunts. A strike to the face. Stones. A knife in her father's hand. Hands pulling her hair. A branch falling on a boy's head. Her mother leaning over her with a damp cloth. Hands shoving her. Two kicks to the stomach. Hands holding her beneath the water. Her father's uneasy stares - like the one he had just given her.

She looks up. The monk has drawn closer.

"The thing I want ...?"

The monk leans over her and smiles. His teeth flash - like a snake, she thinks - but the gleam in his eyes bring to mind an old, sly fox.

"You want one, right? A place to call 'home'."

 

6.

She's scared. Her vision is starting to blur. The taste of blood is heavy in her mouth. Everything hurts. Everything is numb. Is that Shinsuke-sama screaming behind her?

Kagan's presence - her presence? - is reassuring in her mind.

Nothing could ever make up for the lives she took, but if she could just save this one life. Just this one innocent--

A cry reaches her ears, piercing through the silence starting to envelope her. It is unmistakable.

Her mind is clear. She smiles, and draws her last breath.

"Welcome to this world. Please take care of yourself."