THE LAST FAITHFUL

By Penelope Yagake

 

She lamented at how her sight grew darker with each passing day. The sun slipped away slowly, as though hiding itself beneath the earth. There was nowhere for her to go, and so she stayed in the shrine where Koharu’s gaze kept her safe.

Why do I hide away when there are people who are suffering? No, it was too dangerous to go out now. If the dark creatures took her, she feared there would be no one left. Remember, there is always, always someone out there who needs help, Koharu had told her.

It used to be like that every day. She remembered one little boy named Michi who would bring bright yellow flowers as an offering. If I bring mom’s favorite flowers, she won’t be sick anymore! The shrine maiden removed every wilted petal before the boy visited again.

But especially since the long nightmare began to descend on the world, there would be waves of people coming in. Their pleas crashed against each other, echoed throughout the stone walls in nearly indiscernible wails. My child, you must help my child! How many times must I call before you answer? She could hear them screaming and pounding the door even when nobody came to the shrine anymore.

She lit three sticks of incense and stood in front of Koharu to calm herself. Despite all this, she had continued to sweep the floor and wipe away the dust from the statue’s eyes daily. When you have nowhere else to go, let this shrine be your home, it said to her the first day she slept there. I will not abandon you.

Then, faintly, from the other side of the door came a voice. “Excuse me? Is anybody there?”

The shrine maiden peeked through a hole in the door, but she couldn’t see anything. It might very well have been a dark trick. But Koharu was watching her. Cautiously, she cracked open the door and looked down.

“Oh, miss shrine maiden!” The boy piped up.

“Michi!” She exclaimed, “You’re still – what are you doing here?”

As she opened the door to let him in, he ran into her arms. “I was so scared, I thought everybody was gone!”

“So did I.” She hugged him. “Wait, but your parents?”

He trembled like a frightened lamb. “Dad was covering his face and he ran into the forest and didn’t come back. I went to Mom’s room, but she told me not to come in and to go get help.”

“Did you look for the doctor?”

“I ran to the doctor’s place, but he wasn’t there. So I didn’t know what to do, but mom always said Koharu would help us so I came here.”

“I see.” He must expect me to make that happen. But what can I do? She knelt down and wiped his face with her sleeve. “Are you hurt?”

“No.”

She looked over him to make sure. “Come, let’s take care of you. I’ve brought in some water from the well. You know how to wash your hands and face nicely, don’t you?”

“Yes.” He sniffled as she led him to a bucket and handed him a cloth.

“That’s good. Do that, and I’ll go bring something to eat.”

She returned with a tray holding a small pot of tea, two cups, and a dish with plain little rice cakes. Both sat on the floor as the maiden watched the boy eat quietly.

“Do you – do you think it’d be okay to bring some of this to mom and dad?” He asked.

She looked at him hesitantly. “To your mother and father?”

“Mom’s waiting back home. And dad wouldn’t leave us for long. We can bring them here – we’ll be safe here, won’t we?” A flicker of excitement passed over his anxious face.

“Yes Michi, we’ll go back for them, I promise.” She reassured him.

He might as well have been talking to Koharu herself. The shrine maiden felt her chest ache – the boy was more optimistic than she was, and he was seeking answers from her. No, don’t think that way. Koharu has given him strength, and by dint of that, to you as well. Slowly, the shrine maiden rose and walked to the door, peeking outside.

She saw that the sky was covered with clouds so thick that fragile slivers of sunlight struggled to cut through them. It was just enough light to see the path leading to the village. She knew it would have been best not to go out at all. But there was the slim chance that Michi’s parents had survived, and if so, she couldn’t just leave them there. You promised.

“Give me a moment.” She said as she took a candle, which she had lit to brighten up the dark room, and placed it inside a wooden lantern. Soon she had a small lacquer box stuffed with a few rice cakes, and a wooden canister the size of her palm filled with dried tea leaves. There was an old gourd, carelessly left behind by a traveler, that she poured water into up to the brim. All this was wrapped up with cloth. Hopefully it would be enough. The shrine maiden slung the pack of supplies on her shoulder and tentatively opened the door. With one hand holding the lantern, she took Michi by the other and led him outside.

A chill air brushed her face as she crossed the tiled pavement of the shrine premises to the dirt path that went down through the forest. With each step she took, the damp ground clung loosely to her shoes. The grass had dried up and the trees hung over them like stiff, hollow corpses. They reached out with their blackened bony branches and screamed in perpetual agony through decaying hollows. The wind could not sway them, and there was not a bird in sight to soothe them with a song.

“Miss, wait, you’re walking so fast!” Michi exclaimed, nearly tripping over his feet.

“Oh, I’m so sorry dear.” She responded, cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

Even when the village came into view, she was no less tense. A light fog descended upon them as they walked inside. The houses, which should have been familiar to her, had been reduced to almost unrecognizable remnants of burnt wood and stone. Those that had not been completely destroyed were barely standing.

The dirt path they walked upon intersected with another, and where the two paths crossed, a stone statue of Koharu emerged from the fog. Dark stains streaked from the statue’s eyes.

“She’s crying.” Michi frowned. He walked up to the statue and tried to brush away the tears, to no avail.

The shrine maiden didn’t want to think about it. She tugged Michi’s hand. “Come, you must show me where your parents’ house is.”

They went past the statue and further down the road. Eventually, the boy stopped. There stood a house that was seemingly untouched. Not a single crack was to be found, nor was any part of it burnt. The fog was seizing upon the house as though trying to hide it away.

“There, it’s that one!” Michi piped up. He began to tug her along.

“Michi, slow down! You’ll run into something if you move so quickly in this fog!” She pleaded, pulling back slightly. He let go of her hand as he ran up to the house and hastily threw the door open.

“Mom! Dad! The shrine maiden is here!” Michi called out.

“Please, your mother might be asleep. Quiet!” She hushed him hurriedly. From another room came the sound of something dragging across the floor and bumping into the wall.

“Mom? Is that you?” The boy asked anxiously. He slowly walked up to the room.

The shrine maiden saw a tattered piece of paper sitting on a table, held down by a broken vase of dead flowers. She picked it up. Then she quickly looked at the boy. “Michi, don’t!”

He slid open the door. Just as the shrine maiden pulled him back, a dark mass lunged out at him. It slammed into the ground, sending pieces of tatami flying. The thing looked up, twitching spastically, just inches away from Michi’s feet.

“Run, Michi, run!” The shrine maiden cried. But he wouldn’t move. She scooped him up and dashed outside. The dark creature reared up and gave chase, crashing through the paper screen door after her.

She gasped for air as she ran, hearing stone break and crumble to the ground as the creature rammed through the statue of Koharu. She could have sworn she heard the hooves of a wild lamb clattering together madly. Then she found herself in a blur of trees as the fog swept over like a blanket of damp cotton. The rough branches tore at her sleeves and pricked her skin as sweat stung the scratches lacing her arms. She wasn’t used to running so much. Her stomach was aching and her throat burned as she breathed.

“Mom, mom…” Michi was sobbing in her arms and reaching out towards the creature.

The shrine maiden held him more tightly and gulped back her own tears.

She stumbled over a tree root and fell, Michi tumbling out of her arms. The lamb-like creature leapt over her and skidded to a stop, watching and waiting.

“Miss!” Michi screamed.

“Michi, I’m alright, come here.” The maiden mumbled, lightheaded.

She felt something hot against her arm and sat straight up. It was the wooden lantern, somehow still flickering with light. She looked at the lamb-like creature as it crept toward her. The maiden lifted up the lantern shakily and saw the eyes of the creature watching it move.

“You want the light, don’t you?” She whispered. Michi clung to her side as she held him with one arm. Slowly, she placed the lantern on the ground, moving away as the lamb-like creature walked closer to it. While it was distracted, the shrine maiden hoisted Michi into her arms again and ran for the shrine. She gently put the boy down and yanked the door open, hurrying him inside. With the strength she had left, she closed the door and locked it.

The shrine maiden collapsed to the floor, her limbs sore and heavy. The pain she had suppressed came over her all at once, her stomach aching sharply and her head throbbing. Though her body burned, her sweat ran cold. She desperately wanted not to be sick, and crawled over to the bucket of water she had left out earlier.

“Koharu, where are you?” Michi whimpered, kneeling in front of her statue.

The maiden said nothing as she cupped water in her hands and drank.

“Why won’t you help me?” The boy cried. “Mom said everything would be okay if I was good. Can’t you hear me?”

How many times must I call before you answer? The screams of helpless people came back to her.

“Why didn’t you help my mom and dad?” He was shouting hopelessly, clutching his head. “Why didn’t you do anything?”

“I tried.” The shrine maiden murmured remorsefully, as if he was talking to her. Something slipped out from her sleeve. It was the tattered piece of paper from Michi’s house. The boy caught it out of the corner of his eye. The words were smudged and distorted, but he could still tell it was his mother’s handwriting.

Don’t look. Find help. Brave. Love.

Senseless, raging despair possessed him. “I left mom behind! Why her? Dad…” The words tumbled out of his mouth. “I want them back! Bring them back! Koharu, where did you go?”

“Michi…” The shrine maiden tried, but couldn’t find words to comfort him. She went over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.

He collapsed into sobs and didn’t seem to hear her. “I just want mom and dad to come home and be okay. I want to play like we used to. That’s all I want.”

The boy’s shadow began to spread out slowly and crawl up his body as if black slugs were taking him over. His toes and fingertips were darkening like the decaying trees in the forest.

“No… No!” The shrine maiden shouted desperately. “Michi, please, you must be strong. I’ll take care of you, and you’ll see your parents again. Please believe in me.”

He murmured softly, “Will mom and dad be okay…?”

“Yes, they will. You have to keep going for their sake. You mustn’t give up. I’ll help you, I promise.” She insisted gently.

“You promised.” He answered blankly. The darkness didn’t stop.

“Koharu! Don’t let it take him too, Koharu! I’ll be all alone in this world. Tell me how to save him!” The shrine maiden caught herself speaking aloud. I haven’t done that since

She had come to sleep at the shrine one night, years before. A fire had destroyed the village she called home. Her parents were trapped in the house, but they told her to run. Run… run. What was her name again? It didn’t matter anymore. Blindly in the dark, she found the shrine. The shrine maiden burst through the door and cried at the statue’s feet while it looked upon her with a kind face. I am Koharu, and I will protect you. I promise.

“I will not abandon you.” Tears ran down the shrine maiden’s face as she said this. “I tried, Koharu, but I was frightened and I didn’t want to die. I wanted to help, but I couldn’t. But maybe you feel the same. That’s why you left, isn’t it?”

She looked at Michi. His body was gradually corrupting and molding into something nightmarishly grotesque. He was right there within her reach, but there was nothing she could do.

“I don’t know how to help you, Michi.” She choked out, wrapping her arms around him. “But I’m going to stay here. You won’t have to go alone. Even if the darkness takes us both, I will watch over you.”

And at that moment, night fell, and the world was lost to the dark. The shrine maiden continued to hold on, but she was growing weaker. Despair had taken root in her heart, and the tormented branches were poking through. Soon, she wouldn’t be alone in the world anymore.