Loneliness was my god when I was a child, and the moon his eternal eye, slowly opening and closing as I grew and changed under the stars.
My father became a hungry ghost when I was six winters old. I remained numb even after winter had passed. I felt only the tug of time as it slipped between my fingers. My mother put bowls of cabbage soup in front of me, and I ate, but didn’t taste. I didn’t see my hands as they grew larger around the handle of the hoe, and I didn’t see the back of my mother’s hand when she was incandescent with plum wine. Nor the mark she left. I no longer saw my father’s forty cageless birds and hardly noticed their absence after my mother chased them out of the house with a scythe. I was numb to the dawn.
I began to forget the names of things. I felt like one of the ants crawling on the ceiling of my bedroom, as if I were walking on the wrong side of the world. And then, when I turned fourteen and had almost forgotten all memories of him, my father returned.
“Where is your mother?”
He was smaller and looked younger than when he was alive. His smooth and slightly brassy appearance made it seem as if his skin were merely a suit of clothes, washed, ironed, and refitted. His voice sounded as if it might fly away like a bat in daylight.
“She’s in the kitchen,” I said, and he went to the window and stared for five or six minutes at the dusty glass. He didn’t put his hands up to ward away the glare as a living man might, and I wasn’t sure he saw anything at all.
He shook his head. “Where is your mother,” he said again. He began to wander. He picked up an acorn from beneath the white oak and put it in his mouth. I didn’t hear him crack it between his teeth. Maybe he swallowed it whole.
“Father? She’s in there. She’s right there.”
She came out then, dirty laundry still in her hand, my underwear and a few stockings, and the way he looked through her, and the sudden thought that I looked nothing like her broke something open inside of me. She called him by name, but hungry ghosts do not remember names, not even their own, and he turned away. He would not look at this woman. I was suddenly acutely aware of a vast blue space above, a gulf, and its infinite contents began to fall back into me through the crack this knowledge had made. I knew the name of my feelings. I was no longer numb.
I packed for a long journey that night while my father’s ghost, hungry for a woman he had lost, for closure, for a name, or an apology, or merely to polish the gem of an old memory, wandered the cabbage patch and raised the hair on passing hounds. The moon was nearly full.
I had to beg the woman I could no longer call mother for the story, any thread at all. She pulled the cork on a bottle of wine and over that long and violent night, she wove what threads she had into a long black banner embroidered with my true mother’s name, which was my own. She said she knew nothing about why my mother had left us, what I most wanted to know. I didn’t believe her. Dodging her viper hands, at last I slipped out the door and slept under the moon.
By morning, the black banner that flew over my head all night had gone to shreds, though one thread remained: Carp Province. I was too young to go so far. I was afraid of goblins, lycanthropes, thieves, and madmen, but as I left the farm on that sweltering day I saw the shadow of my father in the corner of my eye, and I was alive.
that break the waters:
a flock of geese
a school of fish—
gone before tomorrow.
So ended my father’s life. This is his death poem, written the night before he died of infection from a beaded lizard’s bite.
My father was now forever beyond the reach of the Fisher Queens, those occult matriarchs so drowned in legend that no one knows their truth, that fish for souls and bring them back from the deep sea of limbo. Yet he was also beyond the grasp of rapacious necromancers who might raise his soul to undeath. Hungry ghosts are untouchable. Indeed, I could only occasionally make contact with my father, and only once did my fingers not pass through his hand when I went to grab it. When he walked this realm, he borrowed freely of its laws.
When I left the farm, I didn’t know how foolish and dangerous a decision I had made. I thought then that my father might help me if I encountered trouble. I was armed only with a cudgel I stole from my adoptive mother, whose biting end I knew intimately. It felt right to become acquainted with the other end now. Thinking back, I wonder at the golden invulnerability of adolescence that gripped me like a vision. That journey was not safe, not at all.
The first traveler I met on the highway sold me spoiled meat for three silver craters, jerked frog legs from the swamps of Misa. The sickness took me to hell that night, doubled over and vomiting in a thicket of bamboo. When the fever broke, I threw all the meat away and cursed my tears and foolishness. No one was there to pity me. My father’s ghost hung around like the shadow of a breeze.
I followed the highway west, toward Big Turtle Lake across the border, where I might find some direction in one of the windy lakeshore cities famous for their street food. That was all I knew of the world then.
“Father, do you remember when we used to catch caterpillars?”
His ghost was watching the sky. I had no one else to talk to on the road, and though I wasn’t sure he listened, I thought some good might come of it anyway.
“The blue and yellow ones with horns like the moon. You told me what they did to the cabbages. You showed me the void they left behind. The little windows their mouths cut in the leaves. We fried them up, remember? Fed them to the dog.”
He had already disappeared again.
Halfway to the lake, I saw an iron sword beneath a willow in which hung the freshly severed head of a goblin, looking for all the world like some strange and forbidden fruit. When I picked up the sword, as ordinary as any–its handle palm-worn, the stub of a blue tassel dangling from the end–my journey began in earnest. That was the decisive moment, and as I held it for the first time, a hummingbird flew away and I swear my heart was beating as fast as its wings.
A sharp pain seared my right eye suddenly, and something small and dark red darted out of sight. I looked up at the goblin’s head, studying the ruined pools of its eyes, and once again a figure darted across my vision. Impossibly, it floated in front of everything, breaking perspective, as if it were tattooed on the lens of my eye.
“Who are you?” I shouted, brandishing the sword in a way that would have embarrassed me had I been able to see it later. “What do you want?”
No one answered then or after a dozen cries. The creature I had somehow picked up would never say a word, but much can be said with a body alone. Laughter is a language of the limbs. Like a defect in the architecture of my eye, the demon persisted. I sheathed the sword. I had picked it up like a contagion.
“Well?” I said, trying futilely to focus on the demon. The harder I tried to see him, the more my head ached. I strained my eyes and shook my head trying to dislodge him, but I felt dizzy and sat beneath the tree. I wiped the sweat from my forehead. The demon was laughing, his little body shaking with delight. He might have been standing in the road like any material creature, only he broke apart depth and space. Spiked hands on his knees, he fell down in a fit of glee and picked himself back up again.
I couldn’t help but laugh at his capering. He resembled some kind of otherworldly jester. “What are you doing? Are you a demon?”
He stood and pointed to the ground. “A lower realm? You’re a demon, then.” I heard my father cough somewhere nearby. “I know nothing about demons. Except that they’re usually up to no good.” The imp seemed unaffected by that. Maybe he was used to hearing it. Since I didn’t know whether he would help me or harm me, I named him Korinn, the male version of my adoptive mother’s name.
“Do you know the way to Carp Province?” He bounced up and down, and then ran to the corner of my right eye and vanished. I would get better at seeing him by not seeing.
I sighed. Already the realms were crossing, and I felt as if I were floating into the pure land of clouds. I looked for something to ground me. A bumblebee bathed in the pollen bowl of a wild rose, and I watched it until I felt drowsy and tumbled into the blue of sleep.
Someone kicked me awake, violently, not merely to rouse me, but to injure. I saw his feet first, bare and hairy, heavy with the dust of the highway. He wore patchwork armor, and his eyes were dark, his mouth foaming. I think he was beyond speech, as I was in that moment.
I had never used a sword before. It seemed to cling to my hand like a leech, something strange and parasitic, and I was suddenly afraid of it. I didn’t know where to put the blade or how to get behind the man’s armor. But Korinn appeared, peeking out from the corner of my right eye as if around the jamb of a door. The man reached toward his belt. A dagger hung there, sheathless and rusted, a worn red tassel hanging from the hilt. Time hung too. Korinn pointed furiously, again and again at the same point, what was it, what was so special about that place just below the madman’s knee? I could see his wiry hair. How much longer did I have? I could see a slice of pale flesh. Korinn pointed.
Oh. I get it.
Four drops of blood landed warm on my cheek. Flesh is such a strange thing, so many invisible zippers, and Korinn seemed to know where they all were. He capered, the man fell, and the demon pointed again, showing me a weakness at his neck, his belly, his armpit.
I admit that I ran away. I would never learn if I killed the man. I didn’t stop until I was in the middle of a city that stretched onto a lake, the buildings raised on wooden pilings and rafts. I later learned it is called Gwee, Steeple of the Waters, for the tall spire of a temple that reaches toward the moon. That evening the tiles of its roof blended into the cerulean sky. A ghost temple. I collapsed from exhaustion and fear, my feet dangling into water, the tips of my shoes breaking the mirror of its surface.
I awakened floating on a bamboo raft, wondering why my real mother had left us. The air smelled like fried eel balls and algae. For a long time, I watched the sun’s reflection dance in the ripples made by the bobbing of the raft. The lake caught the reflection of passing geese and then let it go. I smelled smoke on the water.
“Why did she leave?” I asked my father’s ghost, but he was silent. I was left to my own whirling thoughts: she got drunk on plum wine and beat him, or he did, and beat her; she hated me for some flaw small or large; she was kidnapped; she was dead. All the scenes that buzzed in my mind were violent and dramatic. I didn’t yet know how time can slowly work a wedge between two people, so gradually that neither are quite conscious of it happening.
And then I remembered how I wasn’t alone and may never again be so. Korinn leaped across my vision.
“Thank you for your help,” I said. “I don’t know you. I don’t trust you. But thank you.”
A cicada started up its buzz and rattle. As the song faded, a human voice peeled away from the insect’s, and I found myself paddling toward its source. Full of sorrow and without lyric, the song led me to a teahouse near the shore. A willow grew nearby, so much older than my father’s ghost who now climbed on its branches. He was looking for acorns on the wrong kind of tree.
I sat down and watched a wizened man play a stringed instrument I had never seen before. He seemed to be strangling a crane. The weeping songstress in my mind vanished. It was only the instrument, though in that sage’s hands it was more alive than my father. I ordered a cup of asparagus root tea and a bowl of chanterelle soup.
“Who is he?”
My waitress didn’t hear me and walked away.
I stayed until the man’s song died and the instrument returned to stillness. During the performance, one long song without a pause, Korinn reappeared and pretended to swim in my cup of tea. My father weaved in and out of the tables. I felt the sword steady at my side. I forgot about the churning waters of my mind. They no longer made the only sound I had been hearing for days, months, years, and I still believed in the pursuit of miracles, that a lone boy wandering the world could follow his heart and find justice, peace, and benevolent magic. I think I was happy. Or at least the happiest I had been since my father died, and the most content I would ever be on that tumultuous, ill-planned journey.
My father sat down at a table across from a plump man with plum-colored cheeks.
“What’s this?” He puffed up like a toad and spit when he spoke. “Hungry? Call the waitress!” He slurped his turtle soup ever more loudly. “Hungry ghosts, at this hour. At every hour. Haunt somewhere else. Go see the Heart Maiden if you’ve lost something.” Slurp, a hand across his mouth. “Go on! I’ve got enough mouths to feed.”
His head suddenly sprouted mouths like wet blooming mushrooms. I bit the edge of my teacup and blinked hard. When I looked again, he had returned to normal. The realms were mixing in my mind.
“Father,” I said, trying to steady myself. I used his name, and I wondered if I had ever said it aloud before. He stood and wandered away, heading toward an oak whose canopy I could see over the roofs nearby. He was looking for acorns, one of the only things that nourished him, one of the only points of contact a hungry ghost has on the material realm.
I stood, my hands rattling the teacup on its saucer, where two pale drops pooled into one. The son followed his father’s footsteps. I would not look at the man’s mouth. I would stare at the dusty ground. “Sir,” I said, “Who is the Heart Maiden?”
He was not helpful, grumbling into his turtle soup, but others were. The Heart Maiden was well known in those parts. I learned she was a seer of the lost and forlorn, as secretive as a Fisher Queen and almost as infamous. Lost in the maze of streets, the moon rose before I found her, and though I had no coin to pay her, I was assured that wouldn’t be a problem. Had I known then what I know now, I think I would have found another way to find my mother, but I didn’t yet know that very few things in life or death are without cost.
Inside her dim paper house, Korinn danced among the wooden moonbeads hanging from her ceiling. They clicked as I walked to the cushion placed before her seated figure. A scarf of steam from a cup in her raised hand hid most of her face. I realized later that she resembled the imaginary image I had of my mother, the one I returned to for strength on the road, the one I held like an icon. I wondered if she always appeared as the thing you sought, and I hoped that was not the extent of her power.
I was growing tired of illusions.
“Sit down,” she said. “Let me have a look.”
Like the physician that visited when I was young and burning with fever, I thought. But she didn’t look at me. She didn’t touch me. I don’t know what happened, but the wooden beads rattled violently against each other, and I was too afraid to look over my shoulder. I felt as if someone were standing over me. I don’t know what happened. A window opened. The Shrine of Violet Night. And as something swam in the waters of my mind, diving, diving so deep that I felt a faraway pain and panic, I found Emperor Moon in the window, and for a long while He was the only thing, and the afterimage of his bright eye followed me out the door.
In the Empire of the Moon, we worship the great circle in the sky, a crown on the night. We all suffer his judgment, whether you believe in his divinity or not. That isn’t important. No one can deny his lofty purity, the faceless grace of his slow dance across the void. It’s no wonder our ancestors built an Empire in his name, though I doubt even they lived up to his image. The monks who write our ever-shifting laws and punish our sacrilege can only hope to soar so high.
I didn’t leave the Heart Maiden alone. A worm had seen my mother, had been to the Shrine. Shaped like a three-foot sausage, red as blood, with no eyes, ears, or appendages, it had only a large mouth, and against anything you might have believed, it could speak. From between its hundred thousand tiny teeth there came a slinking, slithery voice that wheedled its way into your ear no matter where you were. I could not seem to escape its speech now that it had attached itself to my retinue.
There we were traveling the dusty road: a boy, his father’s ghost, a demon, and a worm named Kardianima who rode on my shoulders like a snake or kept pace at a slither behind me. We drew looks from every soldier, monk, farmer, and merchant we passed. I began to avoid the highway, walking a little off to the side to avoid the scrutiny of highway patrols and curious pilgrims. The worm, who I called Nima for short, wouldn’t stop talking.
“The world isn’t what you think it is,” he said. “Friends do not exist. No real help of any kind, not even the Moon. He brings in the tide, but not of his own will. Who hears a tree falling in a forest when no one is there? No one. The tree dies alone.”
We were heading south from Gwee toward the Shrine of Violet Night near the Crane’s Beak, a large hill said to be the grave of a famous poet hermit. It was located in Carp Province, the only thing I had remembered from my adoptive mother’s story. We hadn’t yet left the lake behind, and I walked to the shore, trying to put a little distance between myself and Nima. I needed a silent moment.
The lake was mailed with lily pads, green armor against the heat of day. Hungry-eyed carp swam just below the surface, and a snapping turtle floated unmoving in the weeds waiting for prey. Who was this strange serpent-worm, and where did he come from? Was he one of the Heart Maiden’s pets? A slave?
“Everyone is ultimately on their own,” Nima was saying, the cattails parting as he slithered through them. “But once you accept that, it’s all right. It’s easier just to accept the hard truths. Life is difficult. Be strong.”
“Come on,” I said. “It’s getting late.”
“Not so late.” He caught something in the weeds and devoured it. I turned away in disgust.
“Are you sure you have to come with me? Can’t you just tell me where to go?”
“I must show you. No one else knows the way. You would get lost. Do you even know the way back home? I suppose you don’t really have a home anymore do you? Do you?”
He enjoyed deliberately misunderstanding me for the sake of a new argument, and each one would inevitably return to the same frayed thread. I’m not sure why I didn’t stop listening to him when I still had the chance.
“No one else knows the way?” I said. I knew he was lying, that I might just as easily have traded for a map or found a less noxious guide, but something inside me feared taking things into my own hands, as if each quest was a spell that could be broken by interference. I was in pursuit of miracles, and magic required hardship.
“No one else knows,” Nima said. “Cut through here. A shortcut. Across the lake.”
Korinn looked displeased, but I followed the worm’s advice. I was falling under his influence.
We left the highway for a woodland trail that led through a field and into the wetlands at the edge of a small lake. People feasted in the field. A muntjac whined in the forest. I saw someone’s smooth brown bottom as they stumbled out of the trees, drunkenly pulling up their pants. The evening was alive with crickets and human voices, blending under the violet sky.
I did not want attention. I don’t think I breathed until I was out of sight of the celebration. Snails jeweled the path down to the lake. I smelled fennel and smoked fish. Lost fishing lures hung like lanterns from the boughs of a tree. A wooden boardwalk extended through the wetlands and across the water to the far shore.
“We’re being followed,” Nima said after we were halfway across the lake. He rode on my shoulders to avoid slipping into the water.
I resisted drawing my sword. Maybe Nima was wrong. I studied the planks of the boardwalk beneath me, one at a time. My breath was already ragged.
“Pucks,” the worm said in my ear. “No one’s friend. They reveled with the humans in disguise. The whole world is in disguise at festival time, a mask on the face of suffering.”
“Can you fight?” I asked.
“Few can look at this face and hold their bowels, not to mention bear arms against me.”
“Are you calling me brave?” Korinn leaped. “Shut up for a second. Both of you.”
The boardwalk widened into a hexagonal platform just ahead. I could hear singing, a girl or several of them. The words faded and then crackled in the evening air vibrating with bugs. Was it the revelers or the pucks, I wondered, some kind of chant they recited to fray the nerves of lone travelers before they molested them?
“What do we do?” I asked. My voice cracked. My legs were wobbling. My father’s ghost was out of sight.
Do not wobble! My father’s words returned to me with a small shock. I had been playing with his Man-in-the-Moon, the good luck figure many people keep on mantles or in shop windows. Painted the yellow ivory of an autumn moon, with crater eyes and a wide toothed grin, the figures are fashioned always to return to an upright position. When you push them over, they stand back up, wobbling a little before returning once again to stillness. Do not be like him, my father said. Let your mind be free with the flow. Follow the great process. Do not think about this path, that path, past, future. Don’t fight it. And then you will never wobble. You will be free.
But I was not my father. I did not know what to do.
“Pucks are rogues, always,” Nima said. “A microcosm of this reality, always ready with a secret knife.”
This time he was right. A small bone-handled dagger struck the guardrail nearby. I turned, and the pucks had thrown off their human disguises. They wore the faces I had imagined peeking out from the dark corners of my adoptive mother’s room, those shadows that pull darker shadows from a boy’s mind. They looked so familiar I wondered if another traveler would have seen the same faces.
Korinn showed me where to hold my blade, wide edge outward, to block the knives they threw. One passed so near my eye I could see the scales of rust on its blade. And then they charged us, pushing us onto the platform where they could surround and flank us. They chortled and beat their feet and hands on the boards. One of them shook a gourd rattle. They wore foxtail hats and filthy rabbit stoles, blasphemous objects.
“It’s time, worm,” I said, and for once he obeyed me. He slithered from my shoulders and uncoiled behind me. Korinn put me on the offensive, and I lunged at the nearest puck, his blue shirt blurring like a song on the wind.
And I missed.
Korinn had never failed me before, and for one frightening moment, urine trickling down my leg, I thought I was about to die.
Later, I learned that pucks are as likely to eat you as they are to challenge you to a high-stakes game of dice. But I didn’t know that then, and I saw my father’s lonesome ghost on the water, his eyes cast down as if watching the reflection of the heavens. I think I whispered an apology. I was prepared to join him.
A shriek brought me back to life, and it was not my own. Ducks split the sky. Frogs dove from lily pads. I turned and saw Nima wrapped around a puck who was disintegrating in the stream of corrosive yellow saliva dripping from the worm’s distended mouth. The other pucks were so alarmed that Korinn found a home for my sword.
They went down easily after that, and by the time I had sliced the last one’s neck, Nima’s saliva was eating through the planks of the boardwalk. The puck’s bones were melting.
“Thanks,” I said, but Nima was too busy wiping the slobber from his mouth to answer. Korinn bowed and walked away.
I took the blurring blue shirt from the puck that had evaded me and stretched it over my other clothes. It took me three tries to adjust the collar, because I couldn’t catch hold of it. Whatever power had imbued it did not fade. Maybe it would make me harder to find.
“No friends indeed,” I said, and Nima grunted assent. I felt bitter and cold. I spit into the lake. Nima began one of his lectures, and because I was young and in need of a truth, I listened. Unanchored by the death of my father, I needed something firm and concrete, and I clung to the first anchor that came into my life. I fell deeper under his spell.
We punish ourselves all the time.
That evening, the sun sank like a peach into the blue waters of the horizon. The pink clouds kept me company, and later, Emperor Moon, his horns piercing the night.
Two days later, we arrived at the foot of the Crane’s Beak. A small village squatted in its shadow like a frog about to be eaten. During the Reforestation Era, the Emperor ordered cedars to be planted along the hillsides, and they now flourished. They bent over the old town, their crooked branches like halberds held over warriors’ shoulders.
The worm led me up a steep stairless track to the top of the hill where the Shrine of Violet Night stood lonely among the cedars. The shrine’s walls were painted the deepest purple I have ever seen, a fragment of everburning night. Still, I have no idea how they obtained that color other than by tearing it from the firmament itself. Someone had meticulously painted stars on the walls. The monks here kept track of the constellations from their high place on the hill.
I raced inside. The worm got caught in the door. At first I thought the place was deserted, but then a monk yelped from the grey space as my eyes adjusted to the shadows.
“A Mountain Eater!” he shouted, and then he called Nima a name that meant something like “worm who eats of the mountain of realms.” I wasn’t very familiar with the language he used, some antique dialect, but I knew he was referring to Yamanakorora, the mythic mountain that stretches between realms. No pilgrim has yet reached its peak. Ultimate reality still evades us, but there are plenty of others to get lost in. “Get that thing out of here. Wretched husk. It’s not even alive.”
Not even alive? I went to the door and pushed Nima outside. “Wait here. Please.” For once, I thought he would listen. “You can go. I don’t need you.”
The little monk stood and stepped away from his prayer cushion. He was weaselly, I thought, and starved about the eyes. His monk’s robes barely fit his scrawny frame. A book lay open on the floor where he had been sitting. He was studying the constellations. Korinn had nothing to say.
“I’m looking for my mother. She took the vow here, I was told. Can you help me?” And I gave him our name.
The monk cackled. “What are you doing with a Mountain Eater? He’ll eat your mind, son.”
“What do you mean? Where’s my mother?”
“You’re not allowed in here. This isn’t a public shrine. You interrupted my prayer. It’s against the law.”
“I don’t care. Where is she?” A trembling hand touched the hilt of my sword.
The monk could move quickly. He stood in front of me, too close. The whites of his eyes were red with strain, and I could smell rot on his breath. “You have her nose, her mouth,” he said. “I wonder if that’s all.”
His hand moved toward my crotch, grabbing at my shirt. Korinn stirred. The monk grabbed air with a look of surprise: the blurred blue shirt had fooled him. I brought the hilt of my sword down on his left shoulder, harder than I intended. “You little whelp!” he shouted. “Son of a whore. She’s dead!”
But I had reason to believe otherwise. “Where is she?”
“You broke my shoulder. You’ll be rehabilitated for this. Blasphemy!”
Korinn suddenly shot wildly from eye to eye. “Where is she!” I slashed his robe, and when he stood, gathering the split cloth to his nakedness, I could tell he was afraid. I knew because I recognized his posture as my own.
“I never touched her, you freak. I was just having a laugh. She left. They took her to the cave.”
“They took her? Who?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know why. I don’t know. The cave behind the waterfall at Innisaga.”
“She’s being held there?”
“I don’t know.”
“You do!” Lust of vengeance possessed me. I did not need Korinn’s help this time. I knocked the monk on the head with the flat of my blade and left him a little blood to clean up. The tassel dangling from my sword’s hilt came unknotted and fell to the floor.
Korinn shook his head: the monk may have had more to say, but I would never hear it now.
That summer felt so different from the ones I could remember, not a short stretch of blue glass or an endless ocean of heat that made the air crackle like a cicada’s wings, but fragmented, shattered. As if I were trying the whole time to pick up the pieces. If I had known what would happen, I would have tried harder.
I stole stale mango buns from a basket beneath a plum tree and ate breakfast on the road. And although there was now no time to lose, my mother being held in a cave against her will, part of me lingered behind at the shrine. The monk’s blood welled up in my mind and ripened like a plum. My mind split, I shed a ghost, and a little boy languished in his shame and waited outside the shrine to receive the monk’s blows, or else confess should the imperial guard come by. The monk’s wounds weren’t fatal, but infection has spawned more than one hungry ghost. Maybe he was only a dirty old man who thought he was much funnier than he was. I wasn’t sure he meant any harm at all. I wasn’t sure if what he meant mattered.
“You did an injustice back there,” Nima said later that day as we hurried south looking for waterfalls. “He was just a horny old man. An old goat, deprived by his monkhood. Looking for a little fun. Haven’t you ever been lonely?”
“Shut up. What did he mean, you aren’t alive? What are you? I thought you would have approved of what I did. He was no friend of mine.”
“But it won’t do to make more enemies. Youth and rage blinded you. You saw what you wanted to see. It was too easy to strike him down. Create another hungry ghost, why don’t you? Give your father some company.”
A mountain is said to rise through the six realms, from yawning hell to heaven and above. Yamanakorora. Demons and devils spawn around the roots of the mountain while devas and gods play at its peak. Later, I learned that Realm Worms like Nima believe they have eaten of the fruit of this sacred mountain. Each worm is certain that he alone possesses the truth of the fabric of reality. If two ever meet, they battle until both are destroyed. They are solitary creatures, who work tirelessly to convert others to their singular truth. But the ore of the sacred mountain turns to pyrite in their greedy mouths. They believe they eat of the heart, but they taste only a toe.
No one can devour a mountain.
“You should go back,” Nima said. “I’ll take the ghost myself.”
“What?” I turned and looked the worm in the maw.
In its empty gaze, I was nothing. My journey had no more meaning than a grub writhing in the earth. We were but specks floating in the void, puppets on unseen strings, and he was showing me the strings. I began to see them as nearly visible threads that obscured the world around me like heavy rain.
“Go back,” Nima said again, and he started to sound so much like me I wondered who was more real: him or my father’s ghost?
If it were not for Korinn, I would have listened to his lectures for many moons and succumbed. If my father’s ghost had the memory he once did, he would have been ashamed of me. He had never let anyone else tell him who he was. I owed so much to Korinn, and I don’t know if I ever told him.
Korinn bolted from eye to eye, back and forth faster than I thought he could move, and I watched him cut the strings of my despair on the sharp edges of his spikes. My father’s ghost was near, watching. He reached into the air, grabbed something I could not see, and blew on his cupped palm.
“Your father and mother don’t need you,” Nima said. “What is a hungry ghost to her, or a son she was content never to see again? She has seen the night, and the night has glanced back. She needs no friends. No family.”
“I’m just trying not to wobble.”
The worm stopped moving. “What did you say?”
As he had done in the beginning with the madman, Korinn pointed at a gap in Nima’s armored hide, a tiny fissure encrusted with old blood. Once, it had oozed. I drew my sword.
“What are you thinking? I can devour your iron,” Nima said, slavering. The grass shrunk away as his saliva dripped forth. “I only ever wanted to talk.”
A breeze rattled the trees around me, and I watched as a narrow birch fell into the arms of a cypress tree. The grove shuddered, and the cypress shook its puzzled leaves. My heart leaped. “The other trees,” I said. “If a tree falls when no one is around, the other trees hear it.”
“You aren’t the man your father was.”
The tip of the blade sunk as if into a vat of butter, and he bellowed, a sound I felt in my own lungs. The sword split the length of his body in two like a duck sausage. Soon I could see the threads of his life, the architecture of his arguments, and wild laughter suddenly gripped my heart.
“This is where you spoke from?” His flesh was like mine. He was blood and bone, muscle and horn. No dark spirit escaped his flesh. No magic words seized my breath. My body shook. I had to pee.
Korinn laughed. I wiped the blade on the grass and ran.
We are not more than we seem, perhaps, but neither are we less.
Did I wobble then?
After the death of the worm, I began to age rapidly. The summer was shedding its skin. Every day ended with a sky like spilled ink. Tomatoes ripened. The sunlight looked worn and coppery. And the air pulled on its coat.
Days passed on the road. No one looked at me now. I wore the dust of the highway like any other traveler and asked for directions to Innisaga as necessary. No more worms or strange maidens. My father’s ghost hung back. I no longer tried to communicate with him, and at night, when the crickets grew silent at the approach of some invisible threat, I doubted my purpose and hugged my knees. I had escaped the worm, but the world would never be the same again. He had shattered the jewel of my youth.
Every pilgrim I passed seemed a little less genuine in his path. Every soldier felt more threatening. Even the few children I saw playing four craters in the fields near their homes had acquired a glint in their eyes like a concealed knife. Swallows battled between songs. The world was draped in veils and curtains, and my feet were getting tangled.
I kept tripping. Was I capable of doing any good at all? If I did find my mother, I was sure I would somehow bungle her rescue and cause us all more pain. There was only darkness behind me and no certain light ahead. A ghost could find his way. Yet if I went back, what would that make me? And still the question remained: why were my parents apart? My father’s ghost was ever silent.
So much of life is going on with it even when it makes little sense. But I didn’t understand that then, and my mind was growing wild with confusion.
Twelve days after I had slain Kardianima, a full moon watched my lone figure walking far from the cities where they were just now toasting to another month come to fruition. Korinn had been quiet for some time. I was unbelievably lonely, but I had begun to push some of the worm’s venomous speech from my mind. The road ahead seemed clear, even if my head was not.
And then a bonfire bloomed in the night.
“What now?” I kept walking, but the fire followed me, first at a distance and then closer. I drew my sword. At that moment I was reckless with apathy. Let me join my father, I thought, and we’ll travel the world unmolested, eating acorns.
“Who are you?” I shouted. My father always said that to speak is to be brave, even when your voice quivers. “I’m tired. I have nothing left to offer. What do you want!”
Imagine a fox so large he could swallow half a dozen men all at once. Imagine stumbling into his immense clawed paw and looking up past the meadow of his chest to his muzzle, his teeth, and eyes like clouded riddles. His head was crowned with smoke and lotuses. His tail was a flame.
I felt the sword slip from my hand. “I’m sorry.”
The fox cocked its head.
“You’re not going to let me pass, are you?” I said. “Is this the end?”
And then he spoke, each of his words lighting a small fire in my mind. “Do you know who I am?”
“Is this a riddle?” Korinn was surprised at my composure, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was closer to resignation. I thought I could already feel the tips of the fox’s hot teeth in my chest.
“No, but I have one of those too. Tell me what this is,” he said, and a small object fell from his mouth. A tin watering can like the kind we had back home to water the flowerpots.
“You keep the moon lit, don’t you?” I asked. I thought a smile might have passed across his lips. “Who are you?”
There was only silence.
Later it would occur to me: why did I not simply walk past him? All I can say is, at the time I never thought of it. Perhaps I was somehow bewitched, or else at the fox’s feet there are thoughts impossible to think. All I can say is that I was bound. My mind burned with foxfire, and there was only one way out of his maze of lights. I tried every word for watering can I could think of, climbing to the bottom of the well of language until my words crumbled into mere sounds. I screamed at his smug impenetrable muzzle. I beat my skull with my fists. I wept in frustration. Sweat dripped from my forehead. Korinn was useless.
Or was he? I watched him trying to pick up the watering can, miming a great struggle, it was too heavy, a joke. He had told me so many things and never uttered a word.
If it were not for him I might have been immolated then and there, or transported back home, yipping laughter echoing in my ears. Maybe I would have struggled against the riddle until I starved to death. But I would never know the cost of failure. I suddenly thought of a stream we had just passed. I ran back, filled the can, and returned to the fox. Hands shaking, I lifted the can and poured water on the flame of his tail.
He vanished in a cloud of white smoke.
If I were a Realm Worm I might say that behind the curtain of the cosmos sits a fox. This is the Truth. It was everywhere I had been, hounding me with riddles and illusions, the biggest of which was myself. Emperor Moon was already grinning, but I was too tired to laugh.
The journey was more peaceful after the fox. I forgot about making sure I didn’t trip. I resolved to save my mother, and my father’s ghost. If my mother didn’t want me, I would ask her why. My mind was still on fire with doubts, but I no longer asked so many questions of myself. A wasp flew into the cup of my hand, and I didn’t panic. I blew softly, and it escaped without trouble.
A few days later, I found the waterfall tucked into the land like a sapphire in the bed of a ring.
I’ve always had a difficult time looking at beautiful things. Some part of me wishes to forestall the pleasure, to save it for a time when, perhaps, I am more worthy, or when life is more perfect. But that moment never arrives.
At the falls at Innisaga, I forced myself to see. I knew I might never be so close to god again. There was nothing else in the world but this: a blue pillar of water so steady and pure it might as easily have been rising from the ground as falling from the sky. Here was something to cling to. The Moon himself might have wielded that pillar like a staff if it was not already holding him up.
I stepped toward the pool at the foot of the falls and felt mist mingling with the tears on my cheeks. The entrance to a cave beyond marked the rushing water like a bruise. Not a single fish spoiled the clarity of the pool, and I began to believe in its legendary healing powers. I removed my shoes and stepped in. Underwater, my toes seemed closer, as if magnified. I suddenly felt enlarged.
I stepped through the curtain of water, so cold it stole my breath, and I can’t say that some change didn’t happen then so that the man who went through the water and the one who came out the other side were not, literally, different men.
The cavern at Innisaga dripped and slithered with leopard slugs. I slipped and fell almost immediately. I was holding my sword out of its scabbard, aching to use it on the first fool to charge at me. I imagined the silhouettes of monks in the corners of my eyes, waiting to ambush me before I could rescue my mother.
I called into the darkness. I called my mother’s name. I called the thirty names a child calls his mother. I incanted, and a conjuration answered like an amethyst light.
She called me by my name.
The cough of my father’s hungry ghost echoed down the stone tunnel.
She was paler and slighter than my father, with fair hair: she was a Child of the Moon. In moonlight, her hair would come alive. She was not, after all, what I expected. She was one of the native people the Empire now kept hallowed and protected by law. Who might dare endanger her then–bandits, trolls, sorcerers?
In her thick white robes, she fluttered up to me like a moth to light. “How old are you?” She moved to enfold me in her arms, but my father was there between us. He could not remember her name. He stuttered and kept her from me.
“No,” she said. “You didn’t have to do this.”
I didn’t know which of us she was talking to. “Are you safe?” I asked. I saw no captors, no defenses; she moved freely here, untouched. “There’s no one here. You’re… Did you come here on your own? Why did you leave? Why?”
“Don’t cry,” she said. Her face softened. Korinn suddenly pointed to her neck, where a strike from my blade would be fatal. I violently shook my head, trying to dislodge him.
“Not now,” I said.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Are you okay?” My father stood between us still, and her hand could not quite reach my cheek.
“You were the one after all,” my father said, and, touching the hem of her pearled robe, he smiled. She cupped his head in her hands as best as a ghost would allow, and then he winked out of existence with a series of flashes, like the flight of white cabbage butterflies. He had traced her up or down the World Mountain on weary silent feet and had now found another home. I recited his death poem once more. His hunger was sated.
But my own was not. I knew I hadn’t done this just for my father. My mother seemed bewildered. “I’ll explain everything,” I said, echoing the words I wanted to hear from her, but she was silent. She reached out to touch my cheek, where for the first time stubble grew along my jaw. Her hand hung suspended. I wondered for a moment if she were in this realm at all, if any of this had really happened, if I would not suddenly plunge through the floor of the cavern into one realm or another to feed upon the roots of Yamanakorora.
Her mouth went slack.
At first I thought I had been bitten by a spider, but my mother shouted, her voice roaring like the Moon through His heavens, and then she was catching my haggard, limp body in her arms. I heard voices and saw the bright fletching of a tiny dart. I had never sheathed my sword. I was trespassing. My mother was protected by the Empire. She did not need saving. What must it have looked like to the monks who patrolled this sacred nook of land? Life and death are but chance and accidents.
It is true that hungry ghosts are forgetful, but not all at once.
No one hears this story as I tell it to myself for comfort in the dark waters of nameless limbo. Words float here like bubbles, rising from the minds of the ghosts whose bodies are synonymous with these waters. There is nothing here, but we are. I think of my mothers. I am hungry for my youth. I hunger for closure, another touch, the words to put a cap on the life and death of someone who put but a footprint on the shore of time.
When I awakened outside the cave, Korinn was gone. The sword was no longer at my side. I couldn’t feel my feet, above which two strangers stood, one of them in the garb of a funeral monk. At seven points in my body, from my forehead to the base of my spine, I felt some force tugging each point in a different direction. I thought for a moment that my flesh would be torn apart before these two strangers.
My mother was in the other room talking about me as if I were not right here.
The realms were vying for my soul, but I knew which one would claim me, and then there was only confusion and distress and a wailing ache to return to the days of my childhood. In the cabbage patch picking caterpillars from the great flowers of leaves, where god was in the silences and the rich broken earth. My father’s shadow fell as if from a gnomon, keeping time still, creating the myth of my youth.
|Kyle E. Miller is a poet and writer from Michigan. He can usually be found in the dunes and forests turning up logs looking for life. Past incarnations include zookeeper, video game critic, retail manager, stablehand, and writing tutor. His work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and Young Magazine. You can find more at www.kyle-e-miller.com.|