The Girl in the Shrine on Mount Osore

The Girl in the Shrine on Mount Osore

by Jordan Taylor

 

The Crone

Yumiko’s grandmother adjusts her brown kimono, the blue veins in her hands like swollen rivers.

“Child, are you listening?” she asks. Her voice is very small, a field mouse’s scratch in the semi-darkness.

Yumiko nods. She does not go to sleep without a story. “The Girl in the Shrine on Mount Osore,” she reminds her grandmother.

The Warrior

The Nanbu-shi’s army threads its way through the ice-cased trees, the samurai’s horses stepping high through the drifts of snow, on their way home from an autumn skirmish with the Tsugaru. The only sound is the huff of their horses’ breathing, white fog against the white sky, and the slap of their leather armor.

One samurai struggles on foot behind the others. His horse was shot out from under him in the skirmish, one of his legs twisted in his fall. He drags it behind him now, a quiet shush, shush through the creature-soft snow.

Flakes begin to fall, catching in his lashes. He has lost his helmet as well. He stumbles, his feet and hands frozen. When he looks up, the army has vanished as if it never was.

He turns. The swath of ground where the riders passed is quickly filling up with new snow, and he is too dazed with cold to find it. One bare tree and one pile of black rock looks much the same as any other on this accursed mountain, and they stretch as far as his eye can see, as endless as the rice paddies of his home in the foothills. He picks a direction and limps on.

Snow cakes the spaces between his armor and clothing. He pauses to listen: a tiny trickle of water, to his left. It is a stream, frozen in the act of bubbling over rills of rock, a tiny thread of melt running through its center. He follows it uphill.

The thread of melt-water grows. He is shivering, and knows that, without warmth and shelter, he will soon die. His breathing is ragged. The air here is thin.

Clouds of white steam drift through the trees, a landscape of ghosts. The air grows warmer. Buddha’s monks claim that Mount Osore hides the gateway to hell, and he wonders if he has died already, and is passing over.

The sound of bubbling water reaches him. He runs towards it, into the steam.

It is a hot spring, crowded with the fluffy copper bodies of macaques. A crumbling stone shrine, built like a miniature pagoda, with its central arch yawning empty and black, watches over the northern end of the pools. The samurai plunges into the water, scattering the monkeys, who scream and chatter in rage. Pain shoots through his body from his frozen feet and fingertips. He closes his eyes, lifting his face to the heavy white sky. Snowflakes kiss his skin.

He suddenly feels he is watched. He turns, waves lapping at the mossy sides of the pool. A male macaque, larger than all the others gathered there, crouches in the arch of the shrine. He walks toward the samurai on all fours, his body swinging heavily. The other monkeys scatter out of his way. He squats on the side of the pool and stares at the man.

The samurai stares back. There is something absurd and almost comical about the macaque’s long, solemn, whiskered red face, like a wrinkled old man with his long tufts of beard. The monkey cocks his head, his dark eyes glittering, and the samurai steps back, the spell broken.

“You are in my pool,” says the monkey.

The samurai begins to shiver, despite the water’s heat. “I didn’t know,” gasps the samurai, “that a spirit dwelt here! Please, I was dying – I would have frozen to death! I will leave immediately, if you wish. I will never speak of this place to anyone.”  He is babbling now, and a part of his brain wonders if he is already dead. He could have – he should have – died an honorable death in battle. He cannot die here.

The monkey demon cocks his head to the other side.  “There is one whom you will speak of this place to,” he says. He blinks at the man. “I will spare your life. I will even give you warm fresh clothing, and send one of my people to guide you home – but you owe me a great debt.” He narrows his eyes. “After decades, the chatter of monkeys wears thin. In lieu of your life, you will give your daughter to me, to be my bride.”

It is a long time before the samurai speaks. The monkeys around him hoot softly, blinking sleepily in the water. “I don’t know if I could find my way back here,” he finally says.

“Leave your daughter in the forest,” the monkey demon says. “She will find her way here.” His eyes are like chips of black ice.

The Maiden

The night before she is to be taken to the monkey demon, she bathes in petals of jasmine. Shadows flicker on the paper screens. She sinks down into the scented water, stray petals, pale, translucent, sticking to her pink skin.

She fishes a whole flower out of the water, peeling the delicate layer of outer petals away from the yellow heart with her fingernails, biting down into its crunchy spiciness, seeds between her teeth. The water is littered with broken buds.

When her father came home from the mountain slopes raving of steaming hot springs and broken shrines and her marriage – marriage to a demon, in the body of a monkey – she merely bowed, her face a Noh mask. One arranged marriage is much like another, and her father, despite his profession, was never strong.

In the morning, she will be taken to the stream at her father’s shrine to perform misogi, and then her maid will paint her body white, and dress her in a white silk kimono and hood. Her father will set her behind him on his horse, and carry her up the mountain. He will not comfort her. He will not cry. She doubts he will even look her in the face.

She will bow. He will ride away.

 The girl waits, her kimono wet to the knees.  Her father has long since disappeared into the snow-laden trees, and the silence is deafening.

She is black and white in a black and white world.

The monkeys materialize silently from between the trunks, a line of females, babies clinging with thin limbs to their backs, their hips and tails swinging in sync. Ice coats their silver-gold fur. They pause, turn their gentle red faces towards her. She follows.

The air thins. Clouds of steam twist between the trees. She knows the legends that are told of this mountain, but she is not afraid of hell. This is a place of great kami, she feels, not of fear, and she imagines her father stumbling into this place, disturbing the stillness of the springs.

Somewhere in the little shrine she can see through the branches will be a secret place, the place the kami emanates from.

At the hot springs, the monkey demon waits for her at the edge of the pool. She knows him instantly, a full head and shoulders taller than the others, inhuman intelligence hidden in his eyes.

She kneels in the deep snow.

“You came, Samurai’s Daughter,” he says. He cocks his head at her, horrifying.

“A good daughter obeys her father,” she answers.

The monkey demon snorts air through his wide nostrils, looking briefly like an old peasant from the rice paddies. “A good father is not so weak as to give up his only child without any resistance.”

The girl bows her head in acquiescence.

“Are you like your father, Samurai’s Daughter?” he asks. His wrinkled fingers grasp her chin, forcing her to look up at him.

“No,” she answers.

He has prepared a bed for her in a corner of the shrine, a bed piled with furs and woven blankets against the bone-cracking cold. Yellow silk curtains, damp with mildew, hang at odd intervals from the stone ceiling. Steam from the springs obscures the heights of the pagoda, slicks the floors with ice.

The monkey demon waddles towards her on his hind legs, his erection absurdly large against his hairy body. She wants to laugh. She wants to cry. Instead she stares up towards the peak of the ceiling, biting her lip until it bleeds, red drops falling on the white silk of her kimono.

There is shelf there, impossibly high and out of reach to any but the most agile of climbers. There is a dark shape on the shelf, hidden in the steam. Her gaze travels down the stone wall, picking out the places where someone – but only someone, she notes, with legs and arms much longer than that of a snow monkey – could pick hand and foot-holds out of the rough stone.

The Beast

He watches from the edge of the pool as she bathes in the hot springs. Her skin, under the white paint, is pale pink, her nipples barely a shade darker. Her hair, unbound, floats to the farthest reaches of the pool, and he imagines the weight she must carry, the strength it must take to hold up her head.

His females hoot and chatter softly in the water around her, picking through the endless tendrils of her hair.

He remembers a time when his body was not a monkey’s, but it seems dim and far away, as if seen through the warm steam of his pool. He was not human, either, but something more. Something less. And tricked, he knows now. Tricked well and good.

The Monk

Birds sing in the trees, in summer, and the little rushing streams sing back to them. Soft moss and springing grass carpet the stony ground. The monk hums as he walks, one of the temple songs, though he knows it is impious. He has tied his red robe up around his knees, and his bald head runs with sweat. He pauses by a stream to drink, hands on his knees. The air here is thinner than he is used to.

His fellow monks gifted him with a walking stick before sending him on his way, one blessed by all the brothers of his order. He leans on it heavily as he walks. There are hidden villages in the mountains, whose inhabitants know very little of the Great Buddha, but still follow the teachings of Shinto, and he is determined to find them and lead them down the Noble Eightfold Path.

There has been a rustle in the trees, following him, for some time now.

When he set out for his journey through the mountains, the other monks warned him to be on his guard. There are things in the mountains, they said, who do not follow the Laws of Buddha.

Tengu, the ancient enemy of Buddha’s disciples. He shivers.

A chattering group of monkeys bursts from the trees, the sun shining on their copper pelts. He breathes a sigh of relief as they scamper across his path and back up the trunks.

He takes another step. A red monkey’s face drops down in front of him, inches from his own. It smiles.

The monkey’s nose begins to grow, until it is pressed against the monk’s own. His smile deepens. His hair recedes. The monk takes a step back, gripping his staff with both hands.

The tengu drops from the tree, landing on taloned feet. The feathers in his matted hair reach only to the monk’s waist. His impossible nose continues to grow, spanning the distance between them. It pokes the monk in his soft belly, and then it stops.

“You are on my mountain,” says the tengu.

It has been a long time since the tengu has had anyone new to speak with. He follows the monk, even though he has to run to keep up with him.

“You’re not the first of your kind I have met,” the tengu brags.

The monk looks sharply back at him. “Oh?”

The tengu lays a finger alongside his nose and smiles slyly. “Oh yes. But this other monk was not so brave as you. He ran away as soon as I pulled that quick-change trick you saw back there. I called after him ‘I only wanted to have a civil conversation!” the tengu spreads his hands, shaking his head sadly, “But ah, some monks are not cut out for the life of a missionary.”

The monk slows. “A missionary, you say?”

“Oh, yes!” The tengu’s smile widens. “You see, we tengu know nothing of the Great Buddha and his teachings! We are more ignorant even than our villager neighbors. But does anyone come to us?”

“We?” the monk asks. “Us?”

The tengu scowls so fearsomely that the monk stops completely.

“One does not like to admit to being alone,” the tengu growls. He looks out through the trees, his nose swinging towards the direction of the nearest village. “If I could but be human, and live a short life of companionship and love –“

The monk straightens. He grips his staff. “The Great Buddha taught us much about suffering. He also taught us of the stages of rebirth.” The tengu turns to stare at him.

“You,” says the monk, and he whacks the tengu with his staff, “Are a Preta, a being of the invisible, a spirit, alone.”

“Oh yes,” breathes the tengu, rubbing his side. “I am.”

“You could,” says the monk, and he whacks the tengu again, harder this time, “be reborn as a human, and achieve your wish.”

“I could?” gasps the tengu. There are tears in his eyes.

“Oh yes,” says the monk. “The Buddha is merciful. There is only one stage of life and rebirth in between. Tengu,” he asks, raising his staff high above his head, “How do you like pretending to be a monkey?”

The tengu is trapped. Tengu do not die.

The Wife

The monkey demon gives her a warm winter kimono and furs, and she does not ask where they came from. She bathes in the springs, attended to by the females, or forages for food in the winter forest. At night, the monkey demon tries to engage her in conversation.

“Tell me about the human world,” he says, crouched on the edge of her bed. “What is it like, living in a community of like-minded individuals?” His eyes glitter in the moonlight as he turns the phrase over again: “A community of like-minded individuals.”

“It is no different,” she tells him. “I was alone.”

The trees by the springs are almost stripped bare of bark, their roots dug clean of hibernating grubs beneath the snow. One day the monkey demon announces that he will take a few members of his troop and venture further into the forest to search for food.

“Do not try to leave this place while I am gone,” he tells his wife, his old man’s face stern and closed, “For I have commanded the other monkeys to stop you if you try, and besides, you will die of cold before you ever make it to the nearest village.”

The girl bows her head and waits to be sure that he is gone. Then she takes two rocks from the springs, and she spends all day honing one to a sharp edge. The females and babies in the springs watch her work, but they make no move to interfere. A few try hitting rocks together themselves. Before he returns, she hides the sharpened stone beneath her mattress.

Autumn turns to winter, and the girl spends her time submerged in the springs up to her nose, or huddled under the pile of blankets and furs on her bed. When the supply of foraged bark, moss, and grubs is gone, the monkey demon announces that he will leave to search for food again.

When she is sure he is gone, the girl reaches under her mattress for the sharpened stone. She unbinds her long hair, and uses the stone to cut it off, close to the scalp. She spends all day braiding her hair into a strong black rope. At one end, she ties a noose. Before the demon returns, the girl hides the rope of hair under her mattress.

The monkey demon returns to the springs with tender water plants from the frozen streams. “What happened to your hair?” he asks.

The girl bows her head. “Perhaps I should have asked for permission first. But my long hair was only in my way, here in the forest, and its weight was too much. I cut it off, and I burned it on one of the rocks over there, and then I scattered the ashes and performed misogi to purify myself. I hope you are not angry, husband.”

The monkey demon frowns, his face more wrinkly than ever. The girl suspects, as she often does, that he is unsure how a husband would act.

“There will be no food for you tonight,” he finally says. “You will remain in the shrine while I eat with my females. Next time I expect to be consulted on such matters.”

The girl bows her head. She does not smile.

He waddles away, his tail twitching in agitation.

The Child

The girl is nine years old, and her mother is dying. Her father is gone, as he is always gone, on business for the Nanbu. The girl sits on a cushion beside her mother’s sleeping mat, holding her mother’s thin hand. Her mother has taken nothing but tea and a little soup for many days now, and the bones in her face stand out from her skin, as if her skull has grown larger.

“I was your age,” her mother is saying, “when I met the tengu.” Her mother’s voice is the only part of her that is still strong – warm, sure, soothing. The girl has heard this story before, many times.

“My father was the head of our little mountain village, but I was a wild young thing, forever running off into the forest to splash in the streams or chase the other children.” The ghost of a smile flits across her face. The girl has never been in the forest, never played games with the local children, and she cannot imagine her mother as a naked and dirty mountain child.

“I was alone that day, playing some strange game of my own in the forest. There was one large, old oak that was really further out than we children were supposed to go, but we loved to play there, and I was running around and around it, chanting one of those children’s rhymes.”

“Run tengu, hurry tengu, run tengu! The Buddha’s monks will catch you!”

Her mother coughs, and the girl clings to her hand. When she can speak again, her mother says, “I had just screamed the last ‘you,’ and was whirling around the tree, when I came face to face with the tengu. His long nose poked me in the chest, and he grinned at me. He was even shorter than I was, and very ugly, with stiff feathers for hair and horrible talons for feet.”

“You are in my forest,’ said the tengu.” The girl’s mother lowers her voice to a scratchy baritone, but the girl does not laugh this time. Her mother coughs.

“Would you like to play a game, tengu?’ I asked. ‘I bet you’re a good climber. We could have a race, to the top of the tree!’ I was really braver than was good for me,” her mother says, with the ghost of a smile again, “and I was lonely.”

“Games are only fun if there are prizes,’ the tengu said, laying one finger alongside his nose. ‘How about this: I will race you to the top of the tree, and if you win, you can ask me any three questions you wish. But if I win, you must take me as your husband, and I will live with you in your village.”

“I suppose he didn’t know that I was only a child,” her mother says. “I was taller, after all.”

“Reckless child that I was, I agreed to his terms, and we raced up the tree. I had raced every child in the village up that tree, and I won every time. I beat the tengu, too.” Usually her mother stops the story here, but today she continues: “When we reached the bottom again, I held him to his bargain, demanding my three questions.”

“Very well,’ he said, ‘Ask your three questions, but don’t be mad at me if you don’t like the answers.”

“I should have run home as soon as I saw him,” her mother says. Her daughter is listening carefully, because it is the first time she has heard the story’s end.

“Tengu,’ I said, ‘Tell me who I will marry, a coward, or an honorable man? Will we have children? Will I be happy?”

“The tengu smiled widely. ‘Three questions and one answer! Hah! This is almost as good as winning. You would not take a brave tengu for your husband, and so I think you will marry a coward. Yes, I am quite sure of it. You will have no sons, but only one daughter, and she too I will take from you. In fact, I believe you will be miserable for all of your short human life.’ And with that, the tengu stamped three times, like drum beats, and disappeared.”

“The next day,” her mother says, “your grandfather came to work for my father, and told him of his son, who was also a samurai, in the personal army of the Nanbu clan.”

Her mother suddenly reaches out, clasping the girl’s hand between both of her own. “You must be strong for him, when I am gone. Be strong for your father for me.”

The Bell in the Box

Spring begins, slowly, to shoulder aside the winter. The macaques remain in their pool as the streams melt and rush with the disintegrating snow. No more flakes fall from the white sky, and the girl catches a glimpse of the rarest patch of brown earth between the mounds of wet snow. She knows she must act soon, before the monkeys leave the springs.

At night, when the monkey demon tries again to engage her in conversation, she sighs and says, “It’s so good to see the snow beginning to melt. There must be many good things to eat in the forest now, even though here there is nothing except the tough moss that grows on the rocks. Maybe there are even salmon in the streams! I know it’s not safe to leave the hot springs completely yet, but I would give anything for a bit of fresh fish.”

The monkey demon narrows his eyes at her. “This fish would make you happy?” he asks.

“Oh yes,” she says, and almost smiles, imagining him struggling to snag a fish with his bare hands.

“Then I will go and find you some.” He thumps his chest. “I am an excellent fisherman, you know.”

The girl turns her head so that he cannot see her face.

The girl pulls the rope of her hair from beneath her mattress as soon as the monkey demon disappears into the trees. She believes her request for fish will keep him busy for quite some time, but she cannot be sure.

She stares upwards at the shelf in the peak of the roof, finding again the hand and foot-holds that she picked out before. The rope of her hair is much too short to reach from the peaked ceiling to the floor, but if she can catch it on a protruding rock high above, near the peak, then she will have it to help her once she climbs higher than she would care to fall.

The steam has cleared a little, as the air has warmed, but the shape on the shelf is still too far away to make out. She steps out of her slippers, then unties her obi and shrugs off her kimono, shivering in her under robe.

She picks up her ebony braid and whips the looped end of her hair as high as she can. It hits the wall halfway up and lands with a thunk. She grits her teeth, backing up to gain more momentum. She plants her bare feet carefully on the stone floor. She spins the rope of hair over her head, her eyes fixed on a rock close to the shelf which protrudes just a little more than the others.

She sends the braid flying, and it catches. The dangling end is still seven or eight feet from the floor. She pauses to think, planning out her route up the wall.

She places one foot on the first foothold, grasps her first handholds, and pulls herself up. She picks her way carefully up the wall, her knees scraping on the rough stone. She has never climbed anything before, and soon her arms are shaking so that she has to pause after every step and rest. Her hand scrapes against the stone. Blood from her knees drips down her shins.

She imagines her mother, racing the tengu up the tree.  She breathes slowly, climbs one step, breathes again. Her toes curl around the thin ledge of stone. Her mother would tell her to be strong.

The end of her braid brushes her bare shoulder, startling her. She steps sideways, her foot slipping, her skin tearing. She grasps instinctively at the braid for support, putting all of her weight on it. The noose tightens around the stone, and she falls, her hands wrapped around the rope.

Her hip bangs against the wall, and she cries out, scrabbling to find new footholds. The noose has held. When she is steady, she hugs the wall with her body and just breathes.

It is a while before she is brave enough to start climbing again, but with the braid for support, it is much easier. Soon, the air is humid, droplets of water condensing on her skin. She has climbed up into the steam. She does not allow herself to look down, but only up.

It is a box that is on the shelf.

She rests again, when the shelf is within reach, before dropping the braid of hair to grasp the shelf and pull herself up. She cries out again as she drags her bruised hip over the ledge. Dimly she wonders if the monkeys left in the hot springs can hear her. And then she is safe, sitting on the shelf, her prize cradled in her arms.

It is large box of painted ebony, about the size of the box that contained her father’s gaming pieces, and wound with three intricately knotted red ribbons. The girl strokes the ebony lacquer with her ripped fingers, studies the three knots. Then she reaches into her robe and pulls out her little stone knife from where she has kept it concealed in her undergarments, and she saws through the three ribbons, letting them flutter to the floor. She lifts the lid.

“Wife!”

She looks down. The monkey demon is below her, hopping up and down and grimacing with anger.

“Come down from there, wife! You lied to me! You tricked me!”

She reaches into the box.

“You said you would be happy, if I brought you the fish, and that’s when I knew.” He shakes his head, his dark eyes glittering. “I waited in the forest, and then I came back to surprise you. Nothing makes you happy. You are just like –“

Inside the box is a single clay bell, roughly made. Its handle fits perfectly in her hand. She rings the bell.

And the world shifts. Wind whistles through the archway of the shrine. Waves knock against the rocks in the pool. The monkeys screech. The trees twist, their branches lashing at the sky. Her body fills with power. Her eyes clear. She can see everything on the mountain, from the tiniest slumbering larvae to the busiest village. She can feel the spring, pushing up through the winter snows. She can hear the song of a wandering monk, far away down towards the valley.

She looks down. The monkey demon is gone, and in his place stands the tengu. He scowls up at her, and she knows that he is facing a moment of arigata-meiwaku, torn between cursing her for her disobedience and praising her for freeing him from the monkey’s body. He shakes his fist at her.

“You are standing in my shrine,” she says, and smiles.

The Girl in the Shrine

“The Girl in the Shrine on Mount Osore,” says Yumiko’s grandmother, “lives all alone in the forest high on the mountain’s slope, a forest filled with ranks of silent trees like the emperor’s army, and cold bubbling streams over black rock. Deep in the forest is a secret place which only the snow monkeys know of, a steaming hot spring, where they bathe in the winter to survive the deep snows. Beside this spring is a little stone shrine, and in that shrine is a girl – a demon, perhaps – not quite a woman, but not a monkey herself.”

“When the snow falls in large, soft flakes like moths and covers the trees in drifts up to their knees, they say that travelers through the forest can sometimes catch a glimpse of her – the black fall of her hair, the red of her lips – darting through the silent trees.”

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 Jordan Taylor has driven across the US three times, and lived in four different cities in as many years. She’s currently living in Seattle, WA with her husband, their corgi, and too many books for one small apartment. Her short fiction has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Fireside, Cicada, and On Spec. You can follow her online at jordanrtaylor.com.

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