Nov 27, 2022, 2:43:06 AM
Catherine held Natsumi in her arms and shook her for good measure. Was she dead? No, a gentle ripple of air came from her nose and her chest rose and fell a little to indicate that she was still breathing, still alive. But, she was out, done, spent after that electrical bolt zapped from her Heartwing Staff and exorcised the upside-down head yokai.
With the demonic nature removed, all that remained in the wake of that bolt of energy was a young girl basking in the glow of her newfound freedom from those negative energies — at least that's how Catherine saw her while she stood by and watched.
The green beam of light that had shot upwards concerned her, but aside from some sounds from cars driving by and the maintenance crew working some distance away, the morning remained calm.
Beside the girl the air distorted and warped, the rippling intensified, and dust and debris orbited around it giving it the shape of an empty sphere. The light lenses around the edges as if it were some tiny black hole floating in front of her. It expanded in an oblong fashion into a portal and a woman, tall and beautiful emerged.
Her sheer height set Catherine on edge; she had never seen someone so, well, tall. Catherine towered over pretty much any Japanese person at about 177 centimeters, and with her platform heels she was well over 185 centimeters, but this slender figure was another three heads above her own.
The woman's face was severe, her lips twisted into a frown. She examined the girl for some time with her eyes. Her eyes seemed devoid of light and looked animalistic, a pair of black orbs that gave no sense of where the tall woman looked. Her body remained unbent, her head unturned, none of those physical clues gave any sense that she was curious about the world around her. A beautiful pleated cloak draped over her shoulders and fluttered behind her. Under the cloak was nothing — there was no shape to her body if she had one at all. She only got the sense of looking deep into the unknown cosmos.
The exorcised girl looked up and her reverie broke. She gasped at the sight of the tall woman. She stepped back from her, her hands covering her mouth, her tiny body quivering.
Around the two of them green flames swirled. One by one, the ghouls that Catherine saw encircling the two began to reshape and form from blobby ghosts into people. They were from all walks and times of life. There were middle school girls dressed in sailor uniforms, high school boys in military dress, a few soldiers, a samurai, women in kimonos, and men dressed in ancient Edo garb, other men dressed in early twentieth century western styles that Japan adapted during the Meiji restoration, and still more who were dressed in the typical dark suits of men and women who commuted to work in the morning. It was a whole smörgåsbord and to wonder what all these people would have thought if they could talk to one another, but they remained silent with their eyes turned to the tall woman.
Catherine shifted her weight to stabilize Natsumi against her body. Yet, the more she focused on the tall woman, the more she recognized her. She was certain now that she had seen her before. But when? A sensation of dread filled her body. The giant oar the woman held recalled images of a black hulled skiff and gentle waves rippling along a placid sea. But at times Catherine saw the oar as a scythe, the face as a skull, and the body as a bag of bones. She blinked away the nightmarish images. In its place was the tall woman again and a sense of calm flowing over herself.
If she was feeling these waves of emotions, then Catherine pondered, that the girl must have felt it more acutely standing before her. The young girl bowed at the tall woman and held it for a long while. She was slow to unbend herself and stand erect before her.
"I… did this," the girl said, her voice filled with resolution. "I ate them!" Her tiny hands quivered as she wrung them together.
"Then you have recalled yourself," the tall woman said, her voice low and husky, a whisper that traveled a great distance.
Catherine caught her breath. The back of her head tingled, the hairs on the nape of her neck stood. She shivered. This soft, yet firm voice had commanded her before she was born. She knew that voice. She was certain of it. It was the voice that came before her mother's voice — and she didn't even remember what her own mother sounded like anymore. She blinked away the flood of images and strange emotions that bubbled up in her mind. She shifted her weight to deal with the affect it had on her body.
"I, I'm sorry!" The girl bowed again and remained bent. "I was… I was so alone!" Tears plipped from her eyes and rained down on the concrete beneath her.
The mob remained silent for a moment, but a loud voice cried out from the congregation.
"Maki! Maki! Where are you!?"
It was Spuddo! No, his real name was Fujiwara. Catherine had wondered what happened to him after he ran off. She followed the voice, looking over the heads of all the other souls in front of her, and caught sight of him. He was no longer the blobby little figure that fled from them, but rather a full-sized man dressed in garb from the Edo era. His hair was tied into a tight topknot and he wore a kawabori over his loose fitting clothing. He stood a distance away from the exorcised girl and pointed an accusing finger in her direction.
"What did you do with Maki! Where is she! She was with me all day and night, and now she's gone! If you did that, if you did all of this, then you should be punished! Please Death, I beseech you, punish this girl!"
Catherine turned her eyes to the tall woman again. Was she death?
The crowd of souls shuffled their way closer. The murmur bubbled up louder and individual voices poked through. A hollow thok, thok, thok reverberated through the concrete.
The chatter stopped.
All eyes turned towards the tall woman. She was banging the end of her oar against the pavement, enough to startle everyone back into silence. Her face showed no sign of annoyance. Even the banging of her oar was calm and meditative sounding.
She used the end of her oar and nudged the girl to stand with her back straight. The tall woman spoke, "How did you fall into this, my child? Please, state your case. I will listen."
"My mother and father abandoned me," the girl began. "I lived on the street, I had no food, no family, no hope. One day when I was begging in the market, a mother and her child showed me some kindness and gave a steamed bun. I was grateful and after that every so often then would give me something to eat. I wished I could live with them, be with them so that I wouldn't have to be alone anymore.
"One night, a voice whispered to me, telling me that I could be together with them. He told me to wait and I did. It was very cold that winter and everyone got sick. The voice told me to go to them. They would take care of me as if I were their own. He guided me through the night and when I reached their home, I thought I was saved.
"But there was no light in their home and when I entered there wasn't a sound. I walked deeper inside and called their names. When I found them their bodies were lying by the hearth. They were already gone.
"The demon reached out to me, gave me the sight to see souls, and I saw them huddled over their bodies. He told me we could still be together and he entered my body and I ate them. And I kept eating souls. I couldn't stop. The voice urged me on. I didn't know where my own thoughts stopped and his began. He didn't even hide it anymore, he just commanded me and I ate and ate and ate."
She turned towards the crowd in front of her. "I don't know how long I have been devouring souls. I don't even remember the voice that took me down this way. But I am sorry. I know I was wrong. I deserve only punishment." She bowed her head towards the tall woman. "I can never return home. Let them pull me apart if it pleases them."
When the girl spoke "home" an image locked deep in Catherine's mind formed. The way home was a place filled with trees, a wood shrouded in mist. Going through those woods into the darkness took one home. She was certain of it, but she was uncertain where the forest was or how she'd get there, only that she'd seen it once before, been through there once before, or maybe many times before taking different paths each time. Despite the deary image of the forest she held in her mind, the thought of going home filled her with warmth and longing.
She gasped and shook her head to break the thought. Whatever the thought was, it was powerful, like reaching the apex of a roller coaster climb or purposefully throwing oneself out of an airplane to sky dive. She grit her teeth and focused on her breathing.
Fujiwara stood stalwart and he looked ready to act first. If Catherine wasn't holding Natsumi she might have made her way to the steps and stood between them.
The tall woman slid forwards putting herself between the young woman and Fuijwara. She stood between the crowd of souls and their devourer. "I will allow no punishment."
"But why!?" The girl cried out.
"She devoured Maki!" Fujiwara yelled.
Murmuring among the crowd rose up to challenge her, but the thok, thok, thok of her oar handle against the pavement quieted them once again.
For the first time the tall woman seemed vexed.
"I took souls!" The girl cried out. "I made a pact with a demon! I listened to the horrible voices in my head, and… and I'd do it again, I know I would! I only deserve—"
The tall woman cut her off. "Forgiveness." She turned to face the girl. "You only deserve forgiveness."
The girl staggered backwards.
"My child, is the sorrow you feel not penance enough?"
"But, these souls…"
"The veil of your corruption has been lifted once and for all."
"But, I could do it again."
"Then destroy me!"
"No," The tall woman said.
"Take her to the tower!" Someone from the crowd yelled. Catherine raised an eyebrow. She wondered what the tower was. These souls weren't speaking in Japanese or her native tongue, English. They were speaking to one another and to the tall woman in a different language. One Catherine shouldn't understand, but she understood it perfectly as if she were fluent in its usage, born with it. No, not born with it, the language was primal, instinctual, and apart of her, apart of everyone standing around her. It was something she had forgotten when she was born into a mortal body.
Thok, thok, thok.
The tall woman addressed the crowd, her words final and resolute. "She shall not be imprisoned in the tower, nor punished by your hand, mine, or any other."
"Why won't you punish her??" Fujiwara demanded.
"Every soul she devoured is here, is it not?"
The question took the wind out of Fujiwara's sails. He turned to the crowd of green glowing bodies. They turned to each other.
"'Tis true, all of you have been deemed lost in my ledger. Your contracts remained in limbo. Now, 'tis resolved and I have come to take you home."
The tall woman made her way into the crowd. The eyes of every soul turned up towards her. From an unseen satchel under her cloak she produced rolls of parchment and handed them to each and every soul. "Let it be witnessed by your gods' eyes that you have been returned the signed contracts. They are concluded. What grievances, what remains, what longings that linger from this life, forgive them. Forget them." At last she turned to the girl and made her way back towards her.
The souls moved aside as she walked between them. The tall woman spoke to the girl. "Perhaps, child, you wonder, if there is such a thing as a pure form of evil. Does it live within? That whisper, that quiet rage. It threatens to upend you. Waiting in shadow to ensnare you and twist the arc of your life. Or perhaps, you hope that it is the plan of some god, cruel in her delights to tempt you towards corruption. If it were, 'twould be no fault of your own, yes?" She extended the final roll of parchment to the young girl standing atop the steps. "But, you have shown me which you believe. A punishment would be simple. But I shall propose something different for you. You fear this voice. You fear what it will make you do. You fear the embarrassment that it causes you. My thesis is that you must face this voice and counter it with one of your own. You speak of uncleanliness, and if that is so in your eyes, how do you scrub away this rage and put yourself on a right path? What does that mean for you? Is this not something worth striving for in your next life? And the one after that? And so on, until you have bettered yourself? I am sorry, that this is no simple answer. The only one who can pay the debt of your sins is yourself, no other."
The girl wilted. "I don't know how to do that," the girl said, her voice inaudible.
"No, I wouldn't suspect so, but the path begins with a question you could ask yourself, and an answer, any answer, to drive you to action, to strive to make yourself better."
"What if I fall again?" The girl asked. "What if I fall over and over again. What if I can never get back up?"
"You just have to take a step," Catherine said, blurting it out over the tops of the other souls. "Um, one step at a time."
The tall woman turned to look at Catherine and smiled. "Yes, as the Emissary says, one at a time. When I see you, I see your lives from the beginning to the end, a shape made of choices and consequences. But from your vantage point, all you see the next moment in the long unbroken chain of your life. You can choose. If you were to take guidance from me choose using patience, thought, and kindness rather than impulse, righteousness, and judgment. It will make the world of difference. Now then, your life is concluded here, shall we disembark from these shores and prepare you for the journey back?"
The girl nodded. The tall woman gestured for her to walk through the Gate of Daikotuin and the girl did so and disappeared. Other souls began to walk and passed through the gate as well disappearing before they reached the other side.
At last there were two souls remaining — Fujiwara and another one looking up towards him.
"Sho-chan! I remembered just now that I was waiting for you."
Fujiwara Sho hurried towards Maki the two souls embraced and swirled around one another. Together they hurried off through the gate and disappeared.
The tall woman turned next towards Catherine.
"How did you know… uh, I was the Emissary?" Catherine hates that term, but it was better than the giant eyeball calling her a herald or vassal. "Who are you?" Catherine asked. "I feel like I know you."
"I am the ferrywoman, the first to greet thee before you are born and the last to visit after you pass from this mortal realm. Otherwise, the time lived in this universe sands away the memories of me. But I am not the end, nor the beginning, only a humble servant eager to see you once again." She bowed.
"Do I… ever get to go home?"
The ferrywoman's tipped her head to one side and stared beyond Catherine in thought.
"I didn't think so."
"There is much for you to do here," The ferrywoman said. "For instance, the god child you cradle in your arm."
"God child? Who is she?"
The ferrywoman opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it. "I should like to know myself, but she needs a chance to change, grow, and blossom too. To think that the emissary would meet the god child. How fortuitous. One to watch the other."
Catherine looked over at Natsumi's sleeping face. "Do you know why she picked me to be her emissary?"
"I believe she said to me once, that she did prefer pretty faces." With her long fingers, the tall woman gently nipped the fold of her cloak and pulled it into a flourish, as if it were a dress and gave a small curtsy. "Please send her my regards."
The tall woman ducked and entered through the gate and disappeared into the morning breeze. All at once the noise of the early morning traffic pierced the silence. Cars honked at one another and trucks roared down the street. Tokyo had come alive and made itself busy unaware of what had transpired out in the open.