The Oiran’s Song

(Content Note: Some readers may find elements of this story disturbing.)

Winter will always remind you of three things: the smoke rising from the fire that burned your home; the cold floor you slept on as a pageboy in the teahouse; and the peculiar shade of your brother’s skin, the way his bruises grayed like melted snow. This color does not make sense in your mouth: spoken, tasted. But you see it every time you close your eyes. His body being folded like a paper fan, broken apart like ceramic. The few nights you could lean next to him, he smelled like wine and another person’s sweat.

When you were twelve, at the onset of war, the teahouse sold you to some passing soldiers. You bundled up your clothes and stopped by Kaoru’s room. He held you, and you exhaled into his chest, where bruises were patterned delicately: stains of the floating world. You didn’t know it then, but the pleasure quarters were starting to crumble. “Goodbye, niisan,” you said.

Your brother did not tell you to be happy, which would have been cruel. Instead he said, “Live well, Akira.” His eyes, when they rested on your face, were loving, sad, and afraid.

The memory of Kaoru’s last words is eclipsed by Taichou’s order to fetch wood. “Yes, sir,” you answer.

As you hoist a gun over your shoulder Kazushige winks and adds, “Get some dinner for us too.” You are not the best shot; Kazushige knows this. He laughs and slaps you on the back. Decides to come along. He hunts four rabbits to your two. You gather wood and wonder how time has passed so quickly.

When you start the fire, you remember the last village you saw—the wet smell of terror, the smoky taste of ash. Someone’s blood on your hands. Like the floating world, the battlefield is all about survival. It’s simply a different set of rituals, a different locked gate. You will not admit your disgust at yourself, at these soldiers. You will not admit your hatred or fear.

After dinner, as you’re gathering everyone’s mess, Taichou says: “An oiran will be arriving soon. This one supposedly trained in Edo’s Yoshiwara.” Through the hoots and clapping you remember the last oiran: Tamakoto, her pale neck barely visible beneath the collar of her stiff dancing robes. When she snapped her elbow back and lifted her sleeve to gesture at the sun, you felt—strange, beyond yourself. The grace radiating from her curved wrists, her small measured steps, was thick and distracting.

Tamakoto ran away from your camp during an overnight stay at a village. The men raged for days, calling her a peasant bitch, a cunt. (You will not think of what happens next. How they turn to you in a fury, grab your wrists and force you against the floor. How you think of Kaoru, and how you are not him.) “If I ever see her again,” Saburo said, “I’ll stab those budding breasts.”

Some of the soldiers come from samurai families; you would not know it from the way they leer. There are few alternatives left for the women of the pleasure districts. Servicing the war—side of the shogun, side of the emperor—is a fate left for those who have no better options. Still: some are determined to live, and it is one way to survive.

Taichou informs you that the oiran will be sharing your tent. When Tamakoto fled, the men ruined the spare she was using. You never shared her futon, of course—never dared slip in, never asked for a turn—but when you helped her unload it the pattern was burned into your mind: white cranes dancing on a sea of red. (Her eyes flitted to yours then darted away.)

That evening you trace shadows on your tent canvas and wonder when the war will end. In the hazy dark, you see the outline of a creature flitting too close to your tent—a crouching figure, with tiny pinprick ears. You scramble out, but there’s only snow blowing everywhere. Probably a fox. Shivering, you slip back into your sheets.

There are youkai in these mountains, or so the stories go. Snow crones, kitsune—strange smiling devils, drawn by the scent of war. The more superstitious soldiers and villagers say these youkai move among the living, wreaking havoc, taking souls. But they’re only stories invented by fearmongers or printers without news to sell. The true demons, people laugh.

If youkai were real, would the snow make them cold? Or would they not feel it, burning as they are?

You cannot hear her, so it takes you too long to see her. It could also be because she is wearing white. Her hair is the only thing separating her from the landscape. As she approaches, snow muting the footfalls of her geta, you straighten up, almost like you mean to salute her. Only then do you notice the bent old woman next to her. You hasten to take the bag from the obasan’s back.

“She is one of our best, young man,” the brothel auntie says to you. “She can play and sing better than any of those silly geisha in Edo. Ah, she is of great skill, our Someyama! I will admit that her dancing could be improved, but she has certainly mastered refinement in other pleasures. We are very grateful for your patronage.” Although the oiran has already been sold, the obasan seems determined to extol her virtues. The oiran stands silently, assessing the pale green tents, the muted noise of men.

“We are grateful,” you say, suddenly too aware of her fate. The obasan motions to the oiran, who stoops toward her. They have a quick exchange and the oiran nods. The obasan walks back to the caravan that brought them here. Somehow you missed that, too. As you are puzzling over this, the oiran clears her throat.

“W–welcome,” you mumble. She has a pack on one shoulder and a wrapped instrument over the other. An uncanny reflection of the snow dances in the black pools of her eyes. Her robe, you notice, is very thin. And beneath it, her skin—so white. You swallow. “Aren’t you cold?”

She looks you up and down, then shakes her head. “What is your name?” she asks. Her voice is surprising. It’s almost rough, without pitch or affectation. And the way she stands with her narrow shoulders slumped is almost inelegant. She is nothing like Tamakoto, nothing like the others, lacking their grace and maturity. Perhaps, despite the obasan’s words, the brothel sent their worst to sing for your group out of spite, as all the previous oiran have died or fled.

“Akira,” you answer. She half–smiles, sharp and dangerous. Suddenly, you feel sick: bile rising in your throat, tremors beneath your skin. Her smile slices to your bone and reminds you that you are cruel, that you are part of the war; that all this fighting is designed to break you apart, burn the world with innocents in its midst. And she knows this. She knows all of it. It’s in her dry lips and unblinking eyes: all the poison in this nation of death.

Then just as suddenly that sensation is gone. “Are you all right?” she asks, but there’s another question in her eyes: do you know me? She frowns slightly, but when you nod in reply, her face relaxes. Her look of cunning may simply have been a trick of her pale face, the snow drifting before it. White against white.

You are tired, and it is cold.

“Please follow me,” you say. You lead her to your tent, and hold the flap open. She sets down her belongings, and you hand her the pack the obasan carried. She narrows her eyes at you, then draws the flap closed. “I’ll see you at dinner,” you almost say, but do not.

She makes quite the entrance in robes of deep navy gauze, stencil–dyed and embroidered with a pattern of waves. Her obi, tied at the front, is golden–yellow, and matches the pins she has threaded through her hair. She holds her shamisen lovingly, the instrument’s circular body white as her powdered throat. Her simplicity from that afternoon is gone. As a performer, she is radiant and imperial, certain in herself.

The soldiers burst out cheering as she walks into their midst. She scans the table, and focuses on Taichou. Her demure grin disappears from view as she bows deeply, before gesturing tentatively at the empty space next to him.

“Of course,” he says. She takes her seat, and carefully positions her shamisen.

She plays as you walk around the tables, pouring sake for tonight’s celebration. This music is oddly familiar. It makes you think of Kaoru gasping as someone beats him, and how his pain must turn to laughter, how he must pretend to want it. It makes you think of feet getting pulled out of slippers as you run, everything turning to ash behind you: your mother’s smile, the paper doors that were your world. When you serve Gengoro your hands tremble. You spill a little, and he slaps you across the face.

The oiran lifts her head at the sound of his strike. She’s the only one who notices—everyone else is used to it. She catches your eye as you shuffle to a different table. Taichou’s hand is already drifting over her knee. She doesn’t smile, but the notes do. You are suddenly more afraid than you have been in a long, long time.

Taichou has her that first night, as you all expect him to, then it’s fair game. She’s a prostitute from Yoshiwara, like the other girls before her; but she’s also an oiran. A courtesan of her standing can choose who she lies with. That’s the air she puts on, even now, and the rest of the camp seems happy enough to comply. When she is not servicing someone, she shares your tent, because you’re the youngest and the least dangerous, or perhaps because you know what it’s like to have your body damaged, the way hers is.

“Make him a man, why don’t you?” Tennosuke laughs, arm encircling her waist. She smiles at him, at you. They don’t think you’d ever lay a hand on her.

They know her name, but everyone simply calls her the oiran, which she says is fine. You think it isn’t right – that it debases her, somehow – but when you tried addressing her as Someyama she said, “Don’t call me that. It isn’t my real name.”

“What should I call you, then?”

She lifted a palm to the corner of her mouth, smirking. “I wouldn’t give that away so easily, would I?”

The fourth night is the first she spends in your tent. She changes into a sleeping robe and removes the paint from her face, undoing her hair so that it flows over her shoulders. She combs it out with her fingers, and you avoid looking at her. Sweat slicks your hands. You spend a long time gazing at the tent wall, but when you finally glance back she is watching you. What feels like eternities pass, as her fingers slip through her hair.

“Are you waiting for something, Akira–kun?” She finally asks. You haven’t spoken much since your initial meeting. The way she says your name makes you burn. You are surprised she remembers it. “Do you want me to start?”

“Start what,” you say, nervous laughter catching in your throat as she leans close, letting her hair fall against your knee. Her own knee pokes out from her robe, and is suddenly pressed against your groin. She takes your face tenderly in her hands. Her lips part. Her breath, wine–sweetened, is warm in the chill air, as she draws closer to your face. You brace your hands on your thighs. She’s beautiful, and so close to you – and you could just take her – but you don’t want to. You don’t.

You lift her hands and push back, gently, until she is kneeling in seiza. You try not to notice how her robe gapes.

“I’m sorry.” The apology is useless, but you want to give it anyway. “You don’t need to do this with me.”

She tilts her head. “I know how to work with anyone,” she says, still in that sweet coaxing voice. It’s different from the first voice you heard her use. She wasn’t in character yet then. “It will be fun, I promise.”

“No—I mean it. It’s all right.” You sit back, trying to ease the discomfort between your legs.

She gathers the folds of her robe in one fist. “You really won’t touch me?”

“I won’t.”

She bursts out laughing. It’s like icicles falling away, sharp and crushing—but you like this face better: her eyes crinkled, mouth gaping. It’s more human, less like a doll. She stretches luxuriously, still grinning. “I knew you were one of those… your face is quite pretty.”

“I—no, it’s not like that. You’re from Yoshiwara, right?”

She nods, and resumes combing her hair. Her posture is no longer designed to seduce you; she sits comfortably, her legs folded to one side as she listens.

“I was—from the floating world, too. Shimabara. My brother and I were part of a teahouse. Um—I wasn’t one of the kagemajaya. Just a pageboy.” You shrug. “Kind of like what I am here.”

“Aren’t you a soldier, too?”

“Well… yes.” You were allowed the title by Taichou last summer—but you know it means nothing really, to these soldiers. You’re still their little servant, the best approximate to a woman when a real one is not around. You are not from a samurai family. They do not know your father’s name, nor would they care if they did. These are not the well–bred nobles of the warrior class; these are men who know how to fight. “They’ve taught me how to shoot, and wield a blade. But it isn’t really my choice.”

“What do you mean?”

“To be part of this war.”

She makes a disapproving sound. “When does one ever get to choose?”

You press your tongue to the roof of your mouth and stay quiet. Your hope is stupidly naïve. She gazes at her lap. “Don’t be too idealistic, Akira–kun. There’s no place for that in our world.” She sighs and lies on her futon, facing away.

You fall asleep that night listening to her breathe, wondering what you are missing.

The first few days, she does not run out of questions. She never helps with your tasks, but often comes along. When you ask her why, she replies, “I’m bored.” But no sex before dinner, or so the unspoken rule goes. She keeps up with her practice, and plays splendidly every night, so they let her do as she pleases. In many ways this matches the idleness of Yoshiwara before evening. But there are no warm baths and no parades here, no other girls for her to pinch or tease. She sits and watches you, tossing and catching her bachi or plucking her shamisen, while you walk through the forest gathering wood, or beat the soldiers’ bedsheets out in the snow, or polish their guns and swords.

The soldiers scout for the enemy, await orders from the military, loudly argue about whether to trust the French. You know that the purpose of your unit is to be light, quick, trained with foreign weapons. Eight in a unit, stealth and speed as shields. You have seen the men do their work. You have tried to do the same.

But you are clumsy with the sword, and although you are now a decent shot, holding a gun still makes you anxious. You might fire more accurately if they did not snicker every time you tried. A year ago, Kazushige was appointed your trainer by Taichou—they didn’t expect you to become one of them, but an extra set of hands and eyes was welcome.

Kazushige is one of the few who has never touched you. He still laughs at your mistakes and hesitation, still hits if you do something wrong, but when he moves your arms to position the rifle, he never grips you too hard. Sometimes you even think you like him.

The idea of liking anything is strange. Unreal. You remember Tamakoto; you remember Kaoru. As memories held apart to be revered, wondered at, they make sense; anything closer and your mind shuts off. The oiran’s shamisen makes an awful twang, and you return to the task at hand: checking that the traps set to capture wolves are still in place.

“No wolves are going to come, anyway,” the oiran says.

“How do you know?”

“Because of the oni,” she answers.

It is well known that the women of the floating world delight in storytelling. They spend years honing this skill.

“Like in the rumors? Those are lies.”

“No, they’re not,” she says. “I’ve seen one.” You glance at her, but she doesn’t meet your eyes. She strikes her shamisen, then grins so that you know she is teasing. “It frightened the hell out of me.”

You keep your mouth closed, though really you are thinking: you frighten me, and I don’t know why. Then you realize: it’s because I want to protect you, and I don’t think I can.

The trap is empty, as it has been the last several days.

“The wolves aren’t coming,” she repeats.

Someone shouts for you to start getting dinner ready. As the two of you trudge back through the snow, you think: the wolves aren’t coming; they’re already here.

You grow used to her presence. Her music still makes your blood race. She performs each night, even dancing sometimes (a beautiful silvery fan in hand, arms undulating like waves in the air); she does her duty. But those few evenings she spends in your tent, you talk freely, easily. She doesn’t bother with elegant language around you. From her tales, you imagine being a young girl in a smoky brothel: delivering love letters for the oiran you are apprenticed to, learning to play the favorite song of that fat old merchant who comes every night to see you. Learning not to flinch when he rests his fingers on your ankle.

She asks about your childhood and you think of the fire; but instead you tell her about the times before then. Like that summer festival you attended as a young boy. How you took so long eating spun sugar that it melted and covered your fat fist. How Kaoru caught a firefly in his cupped hands, and together you watched its feeble glow. How your mother scolded you for buying the mask of an oni, and how she never let you wear it again.

“The mask of an oni?” The oiran’s smile is amused. You feel a little silly, but your thoughts turn to water when she palms the side of your face. “Would you wear it if you had a chance, now?”

“Maybe,” you say. But you’re tired of wearing masks, or maybe just tired. Her hands slowly cover your ears. “What are you doing?”

“One of these days, I’ll tell you a secret.” It’s as if she is saying something entirely different. “One of these days, I might sing you a song.”

Something about the way she doesn’t promise either makes you hurt.

You don’t know if you prefer the encampments—set up throughout Northern Tohoku, often by larger units—or the villages. You’re aware that you bring a cloud of terror wherever you go, that the stricken faces of merchants and innkeepers arise whenever you advance. But sometimes, selfishly, it’s nice to see other people. To visit the market for real food instead of eating rations, gathering plants, shooting rabbits. To wash in a bath rather than a stream, and let someone else clean up for a change. Then you remember how terrible and narrow–sighted you’re being, and how you’re never going to stay, because once your men have had their fill of one village, they’re on the move again. Tokugawa’s secret army, ready to spring at a single word. The light cavalry; one of the few still standing.

Whenever you stop by a teahouse your chest tightens, and you wonder if by some chance you’ll see Kaoru—but of course it’s never the one you left. You’re not even sure if he’s still alive. Even then, you can’t buy his freedom. Both of you have years of service left, to pay your relatives’ debts.

Why don’t you run away, you asked Kaoru once. Why don’t we run away?

Do you see that gate? He pointed. In the afternoon sun his skin looked almost translucent. It is shut throughout the day, and only opens in the evening to let the customers through. And if we left, they would send a search party. There is no leaving this place.

Sometimes, when you look at the oiran, that same question echoes in your mind. You could leave in the middle of the night. The snow would keep your secret until dawn.

But you are not that brave, not that hopeful.

Fighting, the next day, from an enemy group that has surged ahead. Fighting doesn’t happen in your own base very often, but when it does, the camp moves like clockwork. Guns come out like extended limbs and fire, fire, fire. Taichou shouts orders, and everyone follows. These soldiers have been marked by invincibility every year you’ve traveled with them; they don’t know fear.

You hold your rifle level and shoot. Your target falls backwards. The little spray of blood erupting from his head catches in the sunlight before landing in the snow. You suck in a breath; this is not the first man you have killed, nor will he be the last. That you are now a decent shot fills you with both terror and relief. Kentaro makes a strangled sound and rolls over, leaving a bloody smear in his wake. Gengoro, your resident medic—in the loosest sense of the word—curses, seizes Kentaro by the wrists, and drags him off. You shouldn’t be watching, shouldn’t be distracted. You duck behind a carton of rations, and a second later it splinters at the corner.

Presently the gunfire dies down. You are exhausted, but you already know that the night will be spent planning for the move to the next checkpoint. Pressing on. You have come so far from Edo. You must never back down. You must only follow your orders. You must always be ready for battle.

Everyone forgets the oiran. You only remember her when you have lain your rifle down and Taichou counts all the soldiers, still breathing. Fear builds inside you like rising steam. After being dismissed, you run back to your tent without pause. You burst inside to find her seated, tying her hair. She looks as if she is preparing for dinner, as always—but her breathing is shallow. A stripe of sweat shines on her neck. Her hands, holding a comb, are shaking.

You take the ornament from her fingers and tuck it into her knot. There is a strange gleam in her eyes when she looks up at you. You think it must be fear, and say nothing. The urge to grasp her shoulder swells then fades—you have no idea why it even comes to mind. To ground her, perhaps—hold you both there.

“Don’t be afraid,” you say. “It’s over now.”

“I’m not afraid, Akira–kun.”

You decide she is lying, and are somewhat relieved. She is finally acting more like you expect: simply a girl, perhaps more understanding of life’s unfairness than most, but not as calm as she pretends, not as fearless.

Kazushige finds the body while scouting ahead. He runs back, more alarmed than you can believe, and shouts for someone to follow. A corpse, he says. By his uniform, someone from a different unit on the same side—all his guts strung out, face disfigured beyond recognition.

The oiran grabs your sleeve as you head out. She doesn’t want to be left alone, not after yesterday’s battle. You clasp her hand. “It’s all right. We’ll be back.”

“You don’t need to be the one who goes.”

Taichou’s orders—you do. “Stay here,” you tell her.

By the time you reach the point Kazushige marked, the body is no longer there.

“I’m sure it was here,” he says. “Look, there’s still blood.”

You see faint bronze layered on ice. “Did it look like the work of a sword?” you ask.

Kazushige is still looking around, as if the corpse might have crawled away. “Damn. Help me check the surrounding area.”

But there’s nothing, even half a mile out. You imagine what he might have seen; you wonder what beast, human or otherwise, did it.

When you report back to Taichou, Kazushige pretends that the wounds were likely from some violent skirmish, and that together you buried the corpse. You hold your tongue. When you leave the captain’s tent Kazushige grips your wrist, pressing hard in warning. You make a small sound of pain, and he lets go.

“Thanks,” he says.

In your dream, the demon is singing: yuki no asa, ni no ji ni no ji no, geta no ato.

I remember this, you tell the demon. Morning snow; the impression of geta. Twice the strokes for two.

Yes, the demon says. How clever you are. Did your mother once sing it for you?

My mother, and my brother.

The demon is a lady, you find, or perhaps it is only for now. Her touch against your cheek is like water. Her breath on your nose is like ice. Don’t shudder, the demon says. It makes me feel so far away from you.

But you’re not far at all. You’re right here, you say.

For now, the demon says. She kisses your cheek. Thank you for playing along.

“I think she might last through winter.” Kazushige squats next to you while you fill some cartridges with gunpowder. Since that day with the corpse, you haven’t spoken. You glance at him, not sure if you should be wary or light–hearted. The oiran likes the look of Kazushige, or at least that’s what she told you once. Specifically, she said, mmm, he’s so huge and manly. You told her he wasn’t all that bad, and she just grinned.

You think Kazushige must be terribly in love with her, because he hasn’t had his turn yet. He’s so patient. Sometimes the others call him Hotoke–sama, but he just laughs.

“Are you hoping for spring already, Kazushige–san?”

“Aren’t we always?” He smiles and nudges you, and you try not to tip over. You think of how many people his giant hands have killed. Kazushige was trained in one of the most prestigious sword schools, but he has embraced foreign weapons entirely. Everyone in the camp views him with a mix of awe and jealousy.

Kazushige trained you, but in truth, you don’t know him at all. But do you need to? What would be the point of knowing him? He treats the oiran with respect. He has never laid hands on you.

“I suppose that’s true.” You never forget to be polite; to be grateful, at the right moment.

“What does she taste like?” He asks, suddenly. There is a powerful hunger in his voice. Your skin prickles.

“Hm?”

He exhales. “It’s nothing.” He pauses. “Sometimes I envy you.”

For the fact of your uncaring, or for the beautiful oiran that sleeps across you, that you have now, at times, started to consider your friend? What a stupid, tenuous word that is, friend. And yet she is the closest to it. As is Kazushige, perhaps.

“You have no reason to.” You turn your face down, because now it is time for you to draw on modesty, the last feeble weapon in your arsenal.

She decides to play her shamisen next to Kazushige at dinner. He can’t stop staring at her in the dim light, his mouth slightly open. She pours him another cup of sake. You watch Taichou eyeing them at the end of the table, but he’s played along thus far, he’s not going to stop tonight. The other men, too, seem preoccupied with how she leans close to Kazushige and calls him master.

Something is wrong, you think—something is strange about her song. It sounds like the habit of breaking one’s heart. Some melody you’ve heard before, the lyrics about tracks from two pairs of feet, disappearing in the snow. (Mother’s paper–thin smile, Kaoru in the afternoon light, a hand of death stroking your cheek so that it freezes.) When dinner finally ends, the oiran takes Kazushige’s hand and leads him back—to your tent. You don’t even protest. Maybe you can’t. You stand outside in the snow and it’s wet, slushy beneath your sandals. You wonder if you should try to find somewhere else to stay, or just wait. Wait.

Then you hear a harsh grunt, a gasp—I’m stillplease, wait—and you can’t listen any longer.

You wander away, just far enough so that you can’t hear their noises. You crouch down and close your eyes. Sex always makes you think of Kaoru. (The same words, through the paper screens: wait—Master, please—oh, no—of course I like it, of course, that feels—ah.) Anything from sliding doors to the mention of Kabuki can make your insides burn. Sometimes you see your brother’s face and the smile suspended on it, meaning nothing. Hear the choke beneath his involuntary sigh. Some days his neck was lilac as the pattern on the robe of the brothel owner’s wife; how expensive that garment must have been, paid for in sweat and flesh. You shake your head, knowing that won’t stop the images, and straighten up to take a piss.

You are standing in the snow, feeling your heart thaw, watching the sky for wolfhowl and moonbeams, when you hear a cut–off cry. A gasp. You’re back at your tent before you know it. The side is splattered with something like ink, and from beneath the flap red seeps onto the snow.

In the darkness you can hardly see the blood, but you can smell it. The two bodies on the bed are still—or appear to be. Then one of them slowly twists around.

The oiran. Her expression when she sees you is—angry. Full of hate. No, terror.

She screams.

His body is collapsed in blood, the wound on his neck a strange slash. The oiran sits in her soaked red sheets, now sobbing after her cries turned hoarse. Taichou appears first. He grabs your shoulder and stares at you, searching. You stare back. You have no answers to give, and he sees this, backhands you anyway. He wrenches the oiran from her sheets—drags her out into the snow—and she stands before everyone, pale body stained.

“What was it?” Taichou asks, and when she merely shudders, he grabs her chin and forces her to look at him. You want to tell him not to do that—it’s dangerous—no, it might be hurting her—no. It’s not your place. “What was it?”

Talk, you useless slut is not spoken, but you all hear it anyway.

She mumbles something. You see Taichou’s hand quiver on her chin and this time you take a step forward. Her eyes slowly slide to yours, hold you in place. She’s not scared of him, you realize. She’s not afraid of any of this.

“What?”

“Oni,” she repeats. “Oni came, Taichou. Quick as lightning, with blades for fingers. It all happened so—so quickly. It’s these mountains—please, believe me—” her breath catches. “We’re not safe.”

They search her belongings, scour your tent, but there is no tool that could possibly inflict such a wound. She was naked; there was nothing on her person to conceal. Someone came and departed, then. She acted so well, appearing dead; or her beauty stirred the killer to pity, and she was spared. You have no way of tracing whether the murderer is independent, or one of the enemies’ assassins. Nobody knows much of Kazushige’s past—any number of grievances on his name or his family may have finally caught up with him.

That is not so unusual. That she remains breathing, however, is.

Taichou, ever the noble, has Kentaro strike her instead. On her knees in the snow, covered in a crust of blood, she is a pitiful figure—but she doesn’t let her head drop. She coughs and spits red, keeps her cries to a minimum. When Kentaro is finished, she merely wipes her lip and lowers her eyes.

Taichou has no such qualms about beating you. The bruises feel like weights beneath your skin. If you were not useful to them, you might be dead. “If anything else happens,” Taichou says, “Be assured that I will not let either of you off so easily.”

They do not trust you, but they have never feared you, either. They will not start now.

She cannot explain anything beyond her belief that it was oni. They decide she is crazy. Women from Yoshiwara sometimes are, driven to drink and delusions from the misery of their existence. Maybe it was a long time coming; or maybe she was so rattled by whatever it was she did see. Some start calling her yuki jyoro. Still, her words have an effect: the decision is made to head for a different checkpoint. Murmurs throughout the camp are uneasy and angry. Before leaving the next day, they dispose of Kazushige’s body.

You wash your sheets in the river, waiting desperately for them to run clear, your hands icy in the water. A small, additional punishment.

When you look up, the oiran is seated a short distance from you. The bruise on her left cheek is painful to look at and her eyes are raw from crying. But there is serenity in the way she waits for your accusations, your questions.

“I’m not,” she says.

“Not?”

“Not lying.” I’ve seen one, she once said. Oni. Winter not thawing quick enough. Snow piling on the mountains, soft and downy as bird feathers. A man with his entrails spread, his face missing.

She watches you, lips trembling as if she wants to say more. Everything about this moment is a terrible idea. Above all, you have the strongest urge to lay your lips on hers, just to keep her quiet. You have never thought this before.

“Akira–kun,” she says, pulling her legs up so that her knees are against her face. “Can you keep a secret?”

Don’t undo this, something tells you, not for her, you don’t know what she is—

But you recall that first smile she gave you, and how it hurt. How her songs wear down your soul. How she turned, so slowly, last night. You cannot change the fact of things; you can only open your eyes wider.

“Yes,” you say, and wait, and breathe.

She explains it the way one would tell a fairy tale. You never hear about the gods who bled all over the snowcapped mountains, who cursed the earth and all things in it. It may be pretty to imagine, but the oni of these peaks are anything but pretty. They are terrible. Terrifying. They do all the things you hear in stories, and some things you don’t. They like the taste of human hearts and eyeballs. Their manners of killing are varied, but always violent.

Oni are banished to the earth from the next life over, for sins so terrible not even hell wants them. The strongest have plenty of dark magic and can wear human skins; they go into villages under their human guise, slaughter the men, ravage the women, resume their true forms, and eat the children.

They don’t feel, she continues. Not the way humans do. The concept of a feeling means nothing to them. It’s a void. A set of characters limning the air. Smoke curling from a burning village, the gasping between a child’s cries, the blood running from a woman’s thighs as she leaves Yoshiwara with no worse hell to descend. All forms of emptiness, drawn in different lights.

The oni don’t feel. This is the one thing that keeps them alive, the one thing that keeps them from living. They understand sensations, thrills, pleasures—but not their consequences.

Once upon a time, she says, oni entered a village. One encountered a farmer’s daughter. She was not the most beautiful woman in the village, but she might have been the most unlucky. The oni buried himself inside her. The woman lived with shame and terror for months. Her death in childbirth was a blessed one.

Children of oni are born as many times as they are killed. With the blood of terrible gods in their veins, they are unable to truly die; the closest they can get to that satisfaction is bringing death to others. There are countless ways of doing so, but human methods are best. Humans are inventive; they love to dispose of each other. So there are oni that learn trades, speak human tongues, use human weapons with the speed and strength they have gained through the years. Humans need only supply the reasons. Killers and assassins are always wanted; a war just makes things easier.

“Do you know the tale of Ikkaku Sennin?” She stands.

“No.” You stand with her.

“He fell in love with Sendaramo, and lost his magical powers. But my bastard father didn’t do that.” She clenches her fists. “Someday, I’ll find him. I’ll make him suffer what I’ve suffered; I’ll make sure he understands.” The hate in her voice ebbs away. “My mother was human,” she says, as if this needs saying. But if not for that mother, she could not possess such a look of misery.

This time it’s you reaching for her—not cupping her ears or chin, just holding your hands out, waiting to see what reaction this will elicit. She stares for a moment, then moves toward you. You pull her in, and her arms curl around your back, her chin rests on your shoulder. Her chest rises and falls, steadily, and you can feel her heart like a hummingbird. The demon blood thrumming inside it.

“Aren’t you afraid of me?”

You shake your head. You can’t say why this is true—perhaps because she has a beating heart, just like yours, and she has suffered so much more. You are no longer afraid of her, of what will happen. But there are many things you wish to ask. Is the demon you’ve seen the one leaning against me now, lovely in the lake’s reflection? Who has bought you, who has sent you to our camp to kill us? How long have you been circling these white plains? How many men and women have you murdered this way, in Yoshiwara, in Edo, in the war? Before the war?

What do you think of when you see snow falling? What do you think of when you smell winter?

“What is your name?” Your mouth is against her ear, closer than you’ve ever been to another person since Kaoru lay beside you, trying not to let you hear his weeping; no—since they pushed your face into a pillow and forced themselves inside you, groaning—

Her laughter emerges as white breath against your shoulder.

“In truth I have no name, but the humans who first raised me called me Ayame.”

“Ayame,” you repeat.

“A name is a useless thing to have.” She pulls back and studies you. You see blood cascading in her eyes. You see fire. You see Kazushige’s wound. When she kisses you, you close your eyes, but it doesn’t stop the images. Snow keeps falling, right through the darkness that remains long after you’ve opened your eyes again.

“Why Kazushige?” you ask. You are polishing guns that will obviously be used soon.

“Do you know how to fold paper cranes?”

“Yes. Why Kazushige?”

“Promise me you’ll teach me how to fold a paper crane, first.”

You’ll have to think about where to find the paper, but that can be arranged. Taichou keeps some for his official letters. They’re not square. You’ll just have to slice them square, or maybe she can do that, with whatever she uses to slice men’s throats. “I promise.”

“I’m teasing. I already know how. You think I don’t know how?” she smirks and you shrug, the gesture unpracticed.

“Why Kazushige?”

Irritation crosses her face. Her eyes narrow, as if she is asking: Why? Do you care? Why should you care? “He detested you.”

“He was kind to me.”

“Kind? Just because he didn’t hurt you the way the others did? You think that is kindness? You disgusted him with your weakness. That’s why he never touched you.” You don’t know if you can trust her; you don’t know if that will make things hurt less. She glares. “How you can hold on to that fluttering goodness inside you? Don’t you get angry? I’m angry all the time.”

You hold her gaze, try not to tremble as she continues: “You misunderstand me, Akira–kun. The desire to see some blood spilled—you don’t know the hunger, how much it hurts here,” she draws a circle over her heart, waits to see how you’ll react when she says, “How much I burn to see you all dead, how your breathing makes me want to vomit. How humans make me sick.”

That doesn’t surprise you, doesn’t chill you as much as it should. You put down the rifle you were cradling. “Let’s fold some cranes,” you say, taking her hand. She looks surprised—then rueful. It turns out she has paper—one of the parting gifts from the obasan. She balances a perfectly folded crane on your head. It flops down onto your shoulder. She sighs and picks it up.

“That body Kazushige saw? That was the work of an oni not covering its tracks. He had seen too much. So I decided I was going to finish the job. I was prepared to slay him, slay everyone. I was told not to let anyone live. But then you came back—you came in—and I couldn’t kill you.” She grins, but there is nothing happy about it. “It’s all your fault.”

So the camp marches, marches onwards, through the drowsy mountains and your own protesting feet, shivering. It’s glorious in its way, the battle hymn of war singing in your bones, in the strings she plays. There is a village some miles before the next checkpoint. You will scour it for supplies, for signs of the enemy.

Ayame still performs. But these days, they don’t even wait for dinner. They take her when they want to, wherever they please. You can taste the climbing anxiety and anticipation—the bloodlust with it, musk and iron, the taint one can’t be rid of. You fear for the women in the approaching village. Ayame’s wrists are often bruised. If you could see her hips, you are certain they would be too, but she just smiles and shakes her head. Doesn’t hurt me. You think your human brutality can hurt me?

“Are you incapable of being hurt?”

“I wouldn’t give that away so easily, would I?” she answers, amusement like a curling green leaf beneath her words.

One night, she has finished just her first two songs when Kenjirou asks her to stop. There is a pause while people wait for Taichou’s reaction, but he says nothing: arms crossed, mouth set. Kenjirou grabs the shamisen out of her hands. Her eyes widen, but she remains silent. He plays for a few seconds; someone else beats a rhythm with the bottom of his cup. After being spoiled by her music, the noise he makes is discordant—ugly.

“You know this game, don’t you?” Kenjirou slurs.

The tang of alcohol is suddenly alive in your mouth—but the pain in your chest is not due to poison. So this isn’t the method she uses. (Not enough blood, you think. Not enough pain.) Ayame slowly stands, and nods.

He plays, and she begins to sway—the movement can hardly be called a dance. Back and forth, her hands folding out, drawing in—then he stops, abruptly. Caught in mid–step, she judders to a halt. Kenjirou laughs, and everyone laughs with him. Expressionless, she unties the sash from her obi, and drops it to the ground. The music begins again. This time she freezes perfectly when it stops; but when Kenjirou says “Hey!” she obligingly sheds her kimono.

Soon everyone is pounding out the beat with their hands or cups. Kenjirou warbles a tune as he strums her instrument. There is no paint on her body to match her face, but there is something unnatural about the paleness of her breasts, her limbs. You are only sure it is her bare skin because of the way she shivers, and how painful it looks where the blues and blacks are stippled red.

“Akira! More sake,” Taichou says. The game continues, and with it, the jeering and panting, growing more animal–like.

“You should join her,” Gengoro mutters. He has come up behind you; one hand seizes your hip so that you freeze. “This game isn’t supposed to have only one player. Or would that ruin it?”

For the first time in years you feel the sharp edge of danger again—the bottomless shame, your powerlessness, the desire to damn survival and recover some of your pride. I’m angry all the time, she said—but there are no traces of it on her face now, eyes patiently distant while someone throws a cup at her and misses.

You turn to face Gengoro and let him crush his lips against yours, drag you against his body. This doesn’t hurt me, you thinkbut you aren’t like her. Even as the catcalls behind you grow louder, as Taichou bellows out a terrible laugh, as the sound of cloth tearing makes you grit your teeth—you are aware of the trembling in your hands, how you have no blades or claws. How you long for this story to close at the end of winter. How the first touches of spring aren’t showing through.

On a different night, she tugs on your robe and puts her hands against your chest, saying, “It’s cold, cold, cold, it’s so cold.” It’s the most desperate you’ve ever seen her, eyes huge and wide as a child’s. And she’s only a child, really—though how many times has she been a child, you don’t know. You’re only a child. You’re like two rabbits sitting terrified in the midst of everything. But she’s no rabbit, she’s a wolf, she’s biting off your long ears and you let her because she looks so much like you, and it’s freezing. You wrap your arms around her and tell her to go to sleep. She makes this sound, a nothing–whisper, and huddles against you like she might understand your heart. You’ve done this before. You were here before: someone’s arms around you, and you couldn’t protect him, and he was waiting inexorably for death to claim you both, because the fire didn’t that first time.

“What was his name,” she whispers.

“Kaoru,” you whisper back. “He was never really the strong type. We couldn’t save each other.”

Only when he held you. Only when they’d brought the cane across your hands too many times, and you thought maybe this is what all older brothers do: stand by, do nothing, just kneel with you when it’s all over, hold your head and weep.

Ayame shifts to face you. “Would you save someone now, if you could?”

There is an alien note of pleading in her voice. You can’t bear it. “Of course.”

“Then destroy me,” she says. “I’ve been searching many years for someone who can. It hurts just as much for me, only there is no end in sight.”

Sorrow pierces like a knife through your chest. Slowly, you close your hands around her neck. You push your thumbs down, feeling her pulse, the movement of her throat as she swallows.

You shake your head. Ice inside you, everywhere. “I’m sorry. I’m not strong enough.”

She laughs—not cruelly, but the sound hurts you just the same. Her hands rest over yours. “Death wouldn’t keep me long, anyway.” She puts her ear against your heart. Next to her warm body, you feel frozen. “You’re kind, Akira–kun. I won’t ask it of you again.”

The village is already burning when you enter. When will you stop being broken by the sight, the sounds, the sorrow? You are twelve again, being embraced by Kaoru and he doesn’t tell you to be happy, doesn’t even tell you goodbye. He just tells you to live. It is the sweetest parting message in the world. Or this, perhaps: crackling fire, orange against the snow.

Taichou tells everyone to grab what they can. Spot the enemy, find those bastards. Again, Ayame is forgotten. It’s strange how she leaves their minds when they aren’t hurting her, but not strange enough. Not wrong enough. You’re tired of trying to reconcile the halves of your heart; you can no longer lie to yourself. So you don’t stop her, you don’t do anything, when she emerges from where she was asked to stay put, brings out her instrument, and starts to play.

The next few scenes do not make sense. They do not happen in order. They perhaps do not happen and your eyes, witnessing, are traitors.

A little girl stumbles out of her house, blood streaming down her tear–soaked face, and sees the oiran.

Someone, unseen, opens fire. Gengoro next to you falls on his knees.

You hear yourself shout—the same time Taichou does—for everyone to get down, hit the ground.

The little girl runs for Ayame—anything female, human, mother, mother, you almost hear her think—and Ayame lets herself be hugged, hugs the girl back, bending forward, her sleeves billowing out.

You leap over Gengoro’s body, duck behind the façade of a house, sight along your rifle. You don’t see any attackers. You realize it might not be bullets, flying through the air.

In the oiran’s arms, the little girl flops backwards. Her eyes are glassy, her mouth slack.

This is it, you think, this is when I know for sure—

Ayame pulls out her koto and Taichou points his rifle at her, shouts fall back, what the hell are you doing, and she yanks off the strings. You remember the strange gash on Kazushige’s throat and everything slowly clicks into place. That can’t be the only thing. As if to prove your point she reaches into her sleeve and, with the practiced grace of swans, draws out her fan. (You never wondered whether it might be steel.) The sharp edge she launches goes straight for Taichou’s throat, and instinctively you make a move to run for him, knock him out of the way.

You don’t make it. You weren’t expecting to. His eyes, in that final moment, are luminous with hate, betrayal.

“Cursed,” he manages to spit. His gaze lingers on you as he dies.

Your body doesn’t know which direction to move toward. Are oni pouring out of the mountains, or is it just her, the little girl now fallen from her grasp, all the other men turning with bewilderment and terror to witness Taichou bleeding out on the snow?

“Akira–kun,” she calls. She doesn’t need to shout. Her voice carries over the snow—her voice, your home. “Akira–kun, run!”

(Kaoru said: There is no leaving this place.)

(Ayame said: I was told not to let anyone live.)

You could run. You can’t save her, after all—you can’t save anyone.

Kenjirou appears from the other direction, takes in the scene, aims as Ayame turns. Her chest explodes: crimson blooms on her navy robes, spatters the ground, spills out of her mouth. She falls on her knees, gasping.

The gunshot echoes endlessly in your ears. Shatters something inside you.

Kaoru’s distorted breathing—Tamakoto’s eyes flicking away—your hands against Ayame’s throat. It hurts, she said. How she must suffer, alone and filled with hate, swallowed by blood and oaths and the fact of an existence that doesn’t end. You’re the only one who understands, who knows—and you can’t leave her now.

You will lend her your blades, your hands, your hate, however weak and blunted. A cry of fury escapes her lips, blending with their cries of terror, as she stands. You raise your rifle and shoot Kenjirou in the head.

“Do you remember mother’s favorite song?” You are lying on Kaoru’s lap, looking up at his face. It is a summer afternoon like the one so many years ago, when you bought a demon’s mask. A dragonfly darts in and out of the window. Across the street, the faint banter of oiran and their kamuro can be heard.

“Of course,” Kaoru says. “How could I forget?” and he opens his mouth—

This dance is one you’re familiar with, but it’s still too much like a dream. How a body falls, stiff and awkward. How the world sounds when you are moving too quickly through it, pulling the trigger again and again. You like the way she kills better. There are spinning stars in her sleeves that can gouge out a man’s eyes. She has pulled off her robes and is now clothed like a kunoichi, and moves as one too. She doesn’t let herself get shot again; your bullets are too slow for that.

She was born in a village, but much longer ago her father was born on these mountains. The oni are drifting out now, as a bullet punctures your stomach, and another smashes into your shoulder. Out of the corner of your eye, Tennosuke’s blade flashes. You dimly register the pain in your side as you thrust your own sword through him.

It’s almost like the snow has covered the world just for this purpose: to be stained red, red against orange fire, against the somber blue of a uniform that marches for no one.

You were going to establish the new era. You were going to kill in the name of unity. You were going to walk on and buy the freedom of your brother, hold the demon in your arms, because that’s all you want, and together you will listen to her song, and talk about what it’s like to live and die in a floating city. Tea the taste of salt. The smell of skin permeating everything, layered over with incense. Lips pressed tight: a collective of broken promises.

Ayame shouts your name as you slip onto one knee. The sudden silence is strange and sweet. In its melody your own heartbeat is too loud.

Standing before you now, she lays her hands on your head, like a blessing. The ghosts of all things, flowing back. She doesn’t laugh, doesn’t even smile. (You don’t know why you thought she’d enjoy it.) Her hands cover your eyes, cover your mouth, and you kiss her palm. When would this be all right? If the world stopped being so white, for just a moment. If the snow didn’t fall. Then would you still be here, distended? Would you still be kneeling, alone with a demon you can’t bear to leave, a demon who wanted you to live?

“I can’t bear it,” you say, into her hand. “Is this what it’s like?”

She sighs, and when you look in her eyes, they are cracked like glass. This, here, is the human. The woman screaming as she gave birth. The snow–covered mountains. A song about wooden clog marks.

“Why didn’t you run?” she asks.

“You will live forever and I won’t.”

She doesn’t move. The grief on her face is a living thing. You watch her, waiting.

Your eyes close when she leans forward. Her lips are snow; red snow. They taste like singing. Like blood. They are soft like the folds of Kaoru’s robes, where you nestled your head, wondering when the world would stop spinning. Burning. Everything white.

Winter will always remind you of that longing, recursive, in your chest. The last of your strength gives; she catches you, and pulls your head onto her knees. You lift a hand and gently cup her face. You don’t ask if she’s satisfied. That’s a stupid question.

“Tell Kaoru, if you ever find him—I’m sorry. Tell him—this story closed at the end of winter.”

She nods. There are icicle–tears in the corners of her eyes that don’t fall. Your hand slips. She catches it and grips, hard.

Do you love me, you think, but you can already hear her reply: I wouldn’t give that away so easily.

Instead you ask, “What was that song?”

Her fingers brush your hair. Something wet lands on your cheek—demon tears, or melted snow. The dark encroaches as she starts to sing: “Yuki no asa, ni no ji…”

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Isabel-1

Isabel Yap

Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. Born and raised in Manila, she has also lived in California, Tokyo, and London. In 2013 she attended the Clarion Writers Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 2, The Apex Book of World SF 4, Tor.com, Interfictions Online, Uncanny Magazine, and other publications. “Hurricane Heels,” her short story series about magical girls, is forthcoming from Booksmugglers Publishing. She is @visyap on Twitter and her website is isalikeswords.wordpress.com.

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