She watched with frustration as the child’s husk started to shrivel and decay at an unnatural speed. As it lifted up its crumbling hands to its face a look of fear and confusion spread across the bleach white features of its once innocent face, it could see its time here was coming to an end. As the last of the vessel’s life force was expended, the evil within leaked from the body like treacle from a broken pot, staining the earth with its empty blackness, forever to mark the spot where this abomination had occurred, an evil memorial. Ikiryo motioned to the Burakumin to release what was left of the child. The bones and ragged remains of his kimono throwing up a small cloud of dust from the corrupted soil, as if making one last sign of exasperation at their weakness.
Taka woke with a start. Sweat had soaked her night kimono making it cling to her small frame. It was the same dream. Quickly and instinctively she scanned the small room she shared with her brother. The shadows from the trees outside the window created Oni’s and witches on the walls when she felt like this. In the dark, she reached out for the warm body of her little brother sleeping next to her. The feeling of his closeness always reassured her and made her feel slightly silly for letting her imagination play tricks on her.
He was usually such a deep sleeper, away as soon as his head touched the mat, not stirring until the roosters signalled the rise of the sun and the start of a new day. Taka often thought her brother should have been born to a rich family of high status such was his ability to sleep, and resistance to hard work. But he wasn’t there. Where was he?
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes and scanning the room she waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom, the room was silent, the whole house was silent, Taka realised with a start that she couldn’t hear a single noise from outside. Taka listened intently for a clue, any sign as to her little brother’s whereabouts. Taka’s heart began to beat faster, a knot starting to develop deep in the pit of her stomach.
“Think,” she told herself. “He’s probably got scared and gone to get mother,” Taka reassured herself, trying desperately not to let the feeling of fear inside her grow.
Getting to her feet and shaking the kimono from her lithe and youthful body she reached down for the stub of her burnt down candle. Don’t go out now, she silently pleaded. She would check her parent’s room, find Jeng in with their parents, then get back to bed and get some more rest before another days work. Creeping into the hallway it was only a short number of strides to her parent’s room. Although their father tolerated Jeng invading his bed she was too old and he would be angry if he caught her sneaking around the house this late at night. Taka was careful not to make a noise, avoiding the particularly old, squeaky floorboards in the run down shack her family called home.
She was a few steps down the hall and almost at their parent’s fusama door when she noticed the Shoji at the front of the house slightly ajar. Thin streams of moon light reached through the gap and she felt the cool and crisp night air on her skin, raising goose bumps on her thin body. Her heart pounded in her chest as her imagination transformed the light into silvery fingers reaching for her. A light breeze seemed to grip her and momentarily froze her to the spot.
That’s when she heard it. A child’s laugh. Not close but near enough and definitely her brother, the kind she had heard a hundred times from Jeng, shrieking with delight as their father chased him through the paddy fields. Fear and confusion clouded Taka’s mind, she felt as if she were in a dream.
Reaching out to slide open the panel to her parents room, her hand nearly at the groove when out of the corner of her eye she caught the movement of a small shape dart past the crack in the Shoji panel. Turning, she stood, straining her eyes, willing them to make out a familiar shape to solve the growing mystery. She stood for a minute, which seemed like hours, her heart still thumping, and the hairs on her body standing like soldiers waiting for battle. Then she heard it again, a child’s laugh, a muffled titter, this time much closer than before. The little tawagoto, he’s playing games. In the time it took her to register what was happening all the fear and confusion she had felt dissipated, instead replaced with anger. Father will be furious, if Jeng’s fooling wakes him we’ll both be beaten. Thank the Kami I didn’t wake him. With this in mind, Taka resolved to fetch her brother and get him back in bed. In the morning she could discover what had driven him to this bizarre behaviour.
Moving away from the safety of her parent’s room she made her way, quiet as a mouse, towards the front doorway and the welcoming night. The air was crisp and slightly chilled out in the open. Taka looked left, then right, trying to make out the shape of her brother in the dim light. A small stream ran through the village and Taka thought she could make out his form crouched near the bank, about thirty strides away. As she got closer she could make him out clearer, it was definitely him,
“Jeng” she called out, as loud as she dared. “Jeng” she called again after no response. He was kneeling down and appeared to be staring into the slow running brook, breaking the surface of the water with his finger to make small circular motions across its surface.
“Jeng, it’s the middle of the night come back with me now.” Although her annoyance still fuelled her courage, her brother’s strange behaviour was worrying her, eating away at her new found resolve... She was only a few feet behind him, although he still seemed oblivious to her presence. Being outside and in her damp kimono the cool air had become cold and she began the shiver. She was now within reaching distance and sensing something was wrong, reached out and placed her hand on Jeng’s shoulder. As she touched him she flinched, his body was ice cold, and then he started to slowly turn his head. The sight that met her when it fully held her gaze froze her to the spot. This was not her brother, she tried to scream but no sound escaped her lips, she stood ridged, mouth agape, rooted to the spot by invisible tendrils of terror. It slowly stood and smiled, its head held at an unnatural angle. The last thing that Taka felt before her life and soul were extinguished was a deep terror and sadness.
Ikiryo stood impassively watching from the shadows under the bridge. The child was strong and would prove useful for many cycles. Stepping out of the dark her and the new orphan disappeared into the night.
“Taka, Taka,” Her father called, as he scratched his head in thought. Where could she be? He mused. She hadn’t gone to the well, the bucket was still here. She wasn’t in her room, or tending to the vegetable garden, she wasn’t with her brother he had sneaked in with the farmer and his wife after a bad dream and still laid on tatami sleeping soundly. The father asked himself the question every morning for many cycles, hoping that his daughter would return to him. She never did……