No one else could see the ghostly maiden surrounded by fireflies.
She drifted on the cusp of the village, surrounded by the glowing insects and dressed in funeral garb, a white obi tied around her waist and her fine black hair spilling from her scalp in waves of darkness. More woman than child, no words came from her lips and her eyes gazed out at the world, eternally sad and silent as if she had been there since the beginning of time.
Yoichi had long ago learned that no one else seemed to see the strange, sad ghost who lingered and never changed, no matter how he aged. She remained the same in the years after he stopped toddling and learned to walk, as he mastered his characters and read the classics until the year before he left for the capital. He soon accepted that the best counsel was in silence but Yoichi heard the adults talking about the village’s resident ghost with hushed tones and sad reverence and by the time he joined their ranks, he understood their sorrow.
They called her Hotaru no Otome, the Firefly Maiden, and named her for the insects which lit her path as she walked amongst the grave-markers and the stone lanterns which no longer held a light, even as the fireflies continued to dance around them. Her route was the same and she kept to it, night after night, year after year, whether it was raining cherry blossoms, leaves, flowers or snow.
Hanamura was a small hamlet in the mountains, two days walk via dangerous passes and flowing rivers from the nearest town. It was famed for the flowers and the insects which enabled a bumper harvest but Yoichi thought the village was a melancholy place, blooming half the year and then in mourning for the rest as the flowers withered and died. The old men of the village liked to tell tales of how this place was founded and the ghosts who still walked the streets after dark and Yoichi’s favourite was, of course, the story of the Firefly Maiden.
Old Kageyama Jiro, his sake cup still full as he balanced precariously on his knees, had long ago taken upon himself the mantle of bard, of historian and folklorist. He was Yoichi’s uncle by marriage but more of a surrogate father than an extended relative.
Yoichi, now old enough to be called an adult, even though he had only just achieved his full height and his voice had finally broken, sat opposite him and asked the unspoken question. “Ojiisan?”
The old man sipped his drink. “Yoichi-kun, you want to hear the story again, eh?”
Jiro chuckled, still watching the flowers and leaves falling out the window of their little house. “Are you in love with her, lad? Nothing good ever comes from something as transient as her.”
“I know and I’ll remember.” Yoichi paused. “But, please, tell me the story one more time, Ojiisan.”
“Silly lad. All right, just once more.”
The old man wrote the characters on the tabletop, using condensation from the sake cup and his finger instead of ink and a brush: maiden and firefly. Jiro believed in balancing his stories with education and Yoichi had heard this tale so many times that it was nearly as familiar as the kanji. But this time, Jiro’s tale took a strange turn, this time the old man told him the true story and not the one corrupted by time and a thousand mistellings. This time he told Yoichi the truth.
“When I was a boy, about your age, I fell in love with a girl named Keiko. Her parents had tried for years to have a child, praying to the gods to grant their prayer and, one night towards the end of a long, hot summer, a daughter was born to him.
“But Keiko’s birth was not without sorrow. As the little girl took her first breath, her mother – Chitose – took her last and her husband wept tears of joy and grief. Chitose’s ashes were laid to rest in the Morimoto plot, as her parents’ had been before her, in Hanamura’s cemetery and the plot was particularly auspicious not just for the location but also for the fireflies which flocked around the graves.
“Keiko’s father, Haruki, a priest of the way of the kami, believed the fireflies were the souls of the dead returning to grieve for Chitose’s passing and accompany her soul to paradise. But as summer, those long hot days, began to experience the bite of autumn, the fireflies remained and showed no sign of dissipating. Haruki would take his daughter to visit his mother’s grave and, as the months turned into years, Keiko could often be found watching the insects after dark, mesmerised by their aerial dance.
“Haruki tutored his daughter, dressing her a shrine maiden’s robes and teaching her the ways of Shinto, intending her to be priestess of the village shrine after he went to join his wife. Though Shinto teaches us that death is impure, she would often walk through the cemetery in her robes, the fireflies following her in a haze of light. No one ever stopped her and I fell in love with that image, of the firefly maiden surrounded by death.
“My family were poor, traders who had fallen in love with the village and it’s women and settled there. I was born the second of three sons and knew my destiny lay with her; my father arranged the match and, surprisingly, Haruki accepted the proposal, on condition I allow Keiko to follow the path set for her.
“I was the happiest man alive. The flowers of Hanamura suddenly seemed so vibrant and the autumn a haze of colours that I wondered if I had ascended to a higher realm. The trickling of the stream was music to my ears, the singing of heavenly maidens come to wash their robes. Then my brother ended it.
“Wait, what?” Yoshi blinked, he had never heard this before, he hadn’t even known Jiro had brothers.
“Daisuke was my elder by two seasons, born in the bitterest days of winter when the snow threatened to smother everything on the mountain. He was a born fighter, the strongest boy in the village and the finest archer but he hated me.”
Yoichi frowned. “Why?”
“I was not a man in his eyes; I spent my time learning characters, devouring whatever scrolls and scraps I could barter from travellers. I had dreams of going to the capital, of becoming a scribe or a calligrapher. I devoured words and knowledge like everyone else did rice and tea and, in my brother’s eyes, that made me a weakling. I didn’t deserve Keiko and he was going to be sure I didn’t wed her.
“One day, Keiko vanished. She simply disappeared and so did the fireflies. I had no idea where she had gone until a tale began to circulate around the village that Keiko, pregnant from a tryst and ashamed, had run away. No one ever saw her again and my brother quietly smirked, I was his stupid and besotted little brother and my pain was what came with weakness.”
“What happened to Keiko?” Yoichi asked, almost afraid of the answer.
“Her father died a few months later, during the harshest winter on record, and most believe it to be grief. Out of respect, my family at my suggestion, erected a new torii gate carved with the names of Haruki and – at my request – his daughter at the gate to the shrine. As a scribe, I took charge of instructing the stonemasons in carving the characters from the white stone and my younger brother, who became an architect of some renown, led it’s erection. Daisuke just saw the whole exercise as a waste of time and money and the following spring he left for Miyako, his time better served in the emperor’s service than in our tiny village.”
“The night after the torii gate was erected, the kanji on upright pillars still gleaming black against the white of the stone … that was the first time I saw her.
“I had gone to her family’s grave as was my habit, to pay my last respects to Keiko and Haruki, to grieve for the woman who should have been my wife. I washed the grave, laid her favourite food upon it and lit incense so her spirit could taste the food and smell the scent. There had been no body to burn, no bones to place in an urn but I believed and that was the most important thing.
“I suspect I fell asleep at her grave and when I woke, I was surrounded by fireflies. Keiko sat opposite me in an old kimono which had belonged to her mother, the cloth was torn and the simple white obi was stained with blood. Her hair was loose around her and her expression was sorrowful. She did not speak, merely reached out for me and then vanished.
“A few days later word came from Miyako that Daisuke had been found dead, his face paralysed by terror. Suicide was suspected but never proven and his body was burned and interred in a cemetery there. He never came home, he didn’t want to spend eternity here and I think something haunted him, hounded him to his death.
“After that I only saw Keiko on the longest days of summer and she seemed a little happier, or, at least, at peace with her lot and accepting of her death but she never moved on.” Jiro drained his sake cup and Yoichi reached forward to refill it, finding the delicate sake bottle empty. He muttered, words slurring. “Go roll out my futon, lad, I’m tired and the night is long and dark.”
“Yes, Ojiisan.” Yoichi said and did as he was told.
Yoichi couldn't shake the memory the story left with him
With Jiro asleep and the moon hanging high above Hanamura, Yoichi couldn’t shake the memory the story left with him. After rising from his creased futon, he left the little wooden house, closing the shoji screens behind him as quietly as he could. The heat, the vestiges of it, were still hanging in the air, like rocks still warm from the sun’s rays long after it had set.
He could hear the singing of cicadas, the night wind blowing gently over their wings, as he wound his way through the village, past the shrine and up into the graveyard. They were already singing their repetitive whisper – tsuku tsuku boshi, tsuku tsuku boshi – in the darkness, the heralds of summer’s end.
Yoichi bowed in front of the shrine, feeling the need for respect now he understood why their names were inscribed on the stone which was older than he was. The characters spelling the names of Morimoto Haruki and the woman who should have been Kageyama Keiko were visible in the flaming torch light. Yoichi had been brought up well and it felt only right to pray for their souls, for their peace.
The walk to the cemetery on the other side of town took a few minutes, the paved road cracked and still. Not even oni and kodama walked in night’s like this and he was glad, the last thing he needed was to unintentionally anger nature’s guardians.
Mist clothed the trees, hanging heavy but floating above the ground, as if the whole world had been wrapped in spider-silk. The silence followed him, muffling his steps, and Yoichi felt transported to a shadow-realm, closer to the land of the gods than the mortal world where each moment felt like a lifetime.
He walked slowly, as if in meditation, and was unsure whether moments or hours passed him by. She existed out of time and, for tonight at least, so would he.
Keiko was waiting for him in the graveyard, the patterned kimono from Jiro’s tale transmuted into a death shroud.
Yoichi had seen her before, drifting on the edge of funeral services, watching from afar as the village moved on around her. He wondered if she even knew how much time had passed; old Jiro was in his eighties and he had been younger than Sayako, the woman he had married from the next village and she had been dead a good twenty years already. Did she know a whole lifetime had passed her ghost by as she drifted and watched from the gloom between the worlds?
Yoichi stared at her for a moment and then bowed, deeply, respectfully.
She echoed his gesture with all the grace of a well-born maiden and then beckoned to him across the graveyard. After a moment Yoichi took a step towards her and their palms, one ethereal and cold as ice and the other solid and warm, touched across the years and lifetimes.
Memories cascaded into his brain and it would take time before they resequenced themselves chronologically. For now Yoichi tensed as waves of memories flooded over him, as he saw the last hours of the life of the Firefly Maiden.
He followed in her wake, sometimes walking as her, sometimes a step or two behind, as she walked through the village. The day was turning around her, the summer dying in its wake as Keiko headed to the cemetery to pray for the souls of the passed.
That had been where Daisuke had found her.
There were words and images, emotions and the hints of lingering, sensory information as Daisuke dragged her into the woods. Keiko tried to scream, tried to bite him, as he threw her into the undergrowth and forced himself upon her. When she tried to run, tried to tell the villagers what the brute had done to her, Daisuke had strangled her with his bare hands.
Her body’s disposal was a harder matter and, after the noise had died down, he had buried her body in front of the shrine during the foundation of the gate, profaning the sacred and tying her soul to the village. He had bound her soul to misery when she should have found release from the suffering of her ending.
Yoichi fell backwards, landing on the rain-soaked path with something harder than a bump. In the east, the first rays of sunlight were splitting the horizon in two and the village was already starting to stir.
Old Granny Ehime’s voice snapped through the darkness like lightening in a storm and he instinctively flinched, turning away from the spectral girl and her entourage of fireflies. The spell broke and shattered, the humidity flooding in to replace it.
“Good morning, Granny Ehime.” He stumbled for his words, like a blind man without a walking stick.
“Come back to the village.” Ehime paused. “Have you been out here all night? This is not a time to be out, Yoichi-kun.”
“Why, Granny?” he asked.
“Jiro has passed on.” Ehime said and, without another word, led him back to the village.
Night turned into day and Jiro's body grew cold in his futon
Night turned into day and Jiro’s body grew cold in his futon. The ceremony was performed with all the circumstance required of a man of his age and the village was swamped by well-wishers and when Yoichi didn’t see Keiko in the graveyard for the next few nights, he wondered if she had been united with Jiro and moved on.
A day after the cremation and interning of Old Jiro’s ashes in his family plot, Keiko returned and, as he had long ago learned, Yoichi was the only one to see her. This time her eyes were sadder, her amorphous form surrounded by more fireflies than usual and she beckoned to him with even more urgency.
Yoichi wondered if he was dreaming, as he closed the distance between him. Her eyes, for a moment he wondered if he saw hope there, but then she turned and guided him to the edge of the graveyard. The marker stones stopped her but, after making sure she had his attention, the spirit of the Firefly Maiden pointed towards the torii gate with one long, delicate arm, robed in death-silk and the shadow of moonlight.
Yoichi nodded, not sure if he understood but following her instruction regardless he moved with speed. Looking back, it was as if she had stepped into his flesh, focused completely on the still stone shade of the gate erected for the Morimoto clan.
The torii gate marked consecrated ground and the start of the shrine’s holy land. A sacred tree stood behind it, the breeze blowing through its branches. The torii gate had stood through storm and summer down the years and was as much a monument to the names inscribed on the upright frames of the gate as to Hanamura itself.
Yoichi reached out, fingers aiming in the darkness as they met the inscription which read ‘Morimoto Keiko’.
For the first time, he heard her whisper, a voice like the trees moving as a gentle breeze danced between them. “Please …”
Yoichi knew the liminal space where the torii gate stood was the start of sacred ground, a spirit could be bound there but unable to step across the threshold, death was unclean and that was why the cemetery was on the other side of the village. He turned back, saw her pleading eyes, and realised she saw salvation in him, hope for the first time in who knew how many years.
He had little time left as he found a pickaxe, left discarded from gardening work and began to slam the sharp pick into the hard packed earth, trodden by a thousand feet standing and bowing for decades then passing over the threshold with the gods’ blessing.
It was hard work and Yoichi was exhausted but, as the sun rose, he realised the Firefly Maiden – still standing on the cemetery’s edge – was smiling. A moment later, his pick hit bone and the sound reverberated in Yoichi’s soul. Behind him, he heard a soft sigh.
Kneeling down, he began to dig. The black earth creeping under his nails and staining his palms. Over what could have been hours, he slowly revealed the blood-stained rotted remains of an ancient kimono and a tattered obi, the only shroud that would protect Keiko’s corpse from the ravages of time and consumption by the Earth.
As dawn came, as the village awoke around him, Yoichi fully excavated the Firefly Maiden’s tired, battered corpse, holding her bones as if she were a lover sleeping. She had haunted him all the days of his life and now he hoped he might offer her the freedom she needed. She stood, waiting for the dawn, for the sunlight to touch her bones. Her hair blowing gently behind her as colour slowly drained back into her face and into the delicate folds of her kimono, the dark material became inky-blue and cranes moving along the hem, some holding moving fish in their beaks. Her obi became deep scarlet, the colour of the blood which had once run in her veins.
She smiled and bowed, so deep her hair spilled over her shoulders. “Arigato gozaimasu, Yoichi-kun. I am forever in your debt.”
Then her soul began it’s ascent and that image would haunt his dreams for years to come, in the same way that the memory of his sacrilege followed him to his own grave and beyond. But it was worth it and he was glad.
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