A Web of Pearls
~ a sequel to Sacrifice ~
"I met a woman long ago
Her hair the black that black can go
Are you a teacher of the heart
Soft she answered no."
He knows better, he truly knows better. But when he catches sight of her, he steps in.
The passage will be in sight shortly beyond that turn of maple trees in the distance. It is now, when the leaves are golden and the sky a vibrant blue, that he makes the trip for a few bottles, a box of sweets, and a trinket or two. There are friends in this wood as well, and air, and water. The city becomes a prison for one with wings and a thirst like his.
These sojourns are far and few in between, such that his joy for them is unmatched. The shop is bustling and fragile and in constant need of his presence to bolster it with life, but sometimes, he can leave. Today he leaves the children and Mokona with Shizuka behind.
Each time, though the passage is the same, the placing of the exit changes. Time and space conform to the universes and each other, such that no two things ever happen the same way. All things are constant, as they are changeable; it is through such a paradox that once he walks through the space in between spaces, he may expect a new scene to welcome him. Last fall when he took this same trip, a swirl of colour met his eyes as he stepped behind a clothesline that was hung of silk so brightly dyed: golds and greens and pinks and red. This fall, he meets the welcome of a secluded grove lined with tall maple trees.
It is a long walk through abandoned footpaths down the slope of a mountain. He wanders, of course. The shop he seeks lies at the edge of the glistening town in the heart of the valley. He looks forward to delicate sweets melting against the inside of his cheek and a refreshing cup of tea—but only after a good journey. The opposite mountains are far and blue: there dwell friends of other worlds than this, and he must visit them, too. It is to be a long day, but a good day. He has never explored this side of the valley before.
He travels the eastern face of the mountain and lingers until he can linger no longer. Reaching the shop, he drinks his promised tea and partakes his special sweet. When he leaves, he carries with him three bottles of sake and a box of the same sweets and most oddly a small wooden flute. The proprietor insists. Heading home, he travels the western face under the twilit sky. It is then that a strange shape passes by: a sphere, a skull—he stops, and looks, and the vision passes.
A foot north of the other, focussed until he is almost there. But it is then that the figure looms to his left, an old house in ruins on the other direction of his passage home. Just beyond that turn of trees, a mere twenty paces away—but a spell has settled upon the air. Dare he not breathe, for breathing will be the breaking of the spell. He has learned his lessons well. Spells unknown are spells best left alone.
Soft motion against his finger bids him to take notice. He watches as the red lace of Master Hare's best sake unknots itself and blows with the wind. It slips, as if to beckon, half underneath the wooden gates. When he bends to retrieve it, the wind blows it inside.
They are heavy beneath his small hands, these wooden gates. He opens them and gazes upon an old and ruined beauty: the grey of aged stone; the brown of a dead garden; and the black of a house long past its prime. The roof is holed in sections and the wooden panels of the doors are broken. On the first step of stone leading to these doors is his red length of lace, curled and delicate as one drop of blood.
A fine-boned hand lifts it from the stone so graceful and gentle that he never even jolts. She stands like a spectre in the doorway, her eyes coloured with her smile. Her lips are red as the lace she kisses, her eyes beckoning, her hair black as black can go. She is radiant and blinding in her radiance, such that tears come searing down his cheeks. He can still hear her voice from years ago, whispering—hitsuzen—whispering—Kimihiro—whispering—
He knows better, he truly knows better. But when he catches sight of her, he steps in.
She never speaks and they both know why. Such spells require breath to make and breath to break, so their lips stay sealed even as they sit under light. It is now light. The night has passed. The sun spears through the horizon and begins to swallow the darkness. He lays his head on her lap. It is quiet.
His world is younger then when he meets an old man with a tale to tell. The old man walks with a limp and carries a satchel in his thin, browned arms.
"The ashes of my wife," the old man says, "because I am too weak to be parted with what remains of her." Kimihiro smiles. The old man does not see. "I had already lost my son, you see. My son I lost already. Into the skies he flew. My wife and I, we wish to follow. We would follow, had we wings."
"Did you know," the old man says, "that the Thunder has a mistress? She is called Lightning, and they have a son. They had a son, rather, because he fell from the skies. He is the child of rain and terrible Thunder, of rain and glorious Lightning. We called him Raitaro, my wife and I. We raised him as our own."
Kimihiro notices the old man's arms. They are gnarled with sun and age and toil and soil, the fingers strangely twisted, the skin dark and rough, the nails rimmed with dirt. Kimihiro notices the clothes, threadbare and patch-worked. Kimihiro notices the smile. It is soft. It remembers.
"And my son, my son, was nothing like his father. His father Thunder," the old man says, "is followed and follows the harbinger of misfortune. His father Thunder is strength, might. Might in malevolence. His father protected our ancestors, yours and mine, against invaders from the western land. But Thunder wreaked havoc upon all the earth as he did. What Thunder despises, Lightning destroys for him. The remains, the rain washes away."
The wood grows warm underneath his palms. Kimihiro falters to speak. The afternoon is quiet as they sit at the porch. The children are sleeping inside. Mokona is motionless. She is not here.
"Your son, he left you for the sky," Kimihiro says. She is not here, but this is the shop. It is alive. Kimihiro can feel it thrumming beneath his fingers. He is to do this alone.
"Perhaps," the old man says, "but I shall never know until I meet him again. He flew before his words were formed. He flew into the clouds. He joined them; he always watched them closely when he was young. Oh, my words fail his beauty!—he was magnificent when he flew. Magnificent—a dragon! A white dragon, white as purest snow, white as wintry sky. Long and strong and elegant. Do you know elegance? He was elegance. His hair the softest down of white, his eyes the very light, his skin as pale as porcelain of the finest quality—oh, my boy, my boy who flew into the sky—"
The old man turns to face him, eyes edged and heavy with a weight he does not yet understand. For how can he, young as he is, knowing no concept of loss and longing just as he knows no concept of having and wanting? This weight is indescribable in words, only knowable through the passing of time.
"Will you help me, Apprentice? Will you lend me your wings? I know they are small, but my burden is light. You shall have them back for I will want no more after I see my son. When one ceases wanting, one ceases breathing," the old man says to him. "Will you help me, young one?"
Kimihiro says, "I know not how."
The old man smiles. "This," says he, "is what I'll take." Gnarled fingers reach for his neck, where the imprints of two hands are bruised in snarling blue and red. They are from a previous task, from which he still remembers the darkness caressing his skin. It would have killed him, but he fought back.
The fingers withdraw and clutch a small light in the spaces they have in between them. It glows with the color of blood and life and sadness. Within it is a form—Kimihiro squints—
"My words," the old man says, "are what I give in return. You will remember them—they will wake you—when it is time. All things fall into their place."
Kimihiro never hears the words, never remembers the payment, because he looks too intently into the little light. It is his light, his will to life. It is his will to push the darkness away. It is him, waking up.
The light takes the old man away with it, emerging from the gnarled fingers, stretching its tiny wings out with full intent to fly far. Kimihiro looks on as it leaves for now, a delicate monarch butterfly.
As she slides her hand through his hair as they sit in the daytime cast of ruin around them, as he lulls to sleep, he hears the words. They are faint. Far. But he remembers—they are waking him up.
The old man says:
Remember my son, the child of the sky. Remember that he is beauty and might and elegance. Remember that he fell. That was his flaw. Remember that every flaw is not without its beauty. He came to me to be my son to be away from his father Thunder. Remember that his true father is Thunder. He is not my son. He was my son and it was beautiful while it lasted, but remember, young one, that every beauty is not without its flaw.
He sees her even in his dreams. They walk side by side, her grace unparalleled. She puts one foot north of the other, focussed yet effortless, like the willow branch swaying in the breeze. They walk into the fading light, the day ending, waning, and he feels a deep, velvet calm. She takes his hand and they look to the night sky. They pick out the stars one by one between finger and thumb so that they are pinched away and blink into oblivion. It grows darker still. He is calm with her by his side. They walk. It is quiet.
It is a week before the old man finds the way into the shop that Kimihiro meets the darkness. He sees it first upon the form of a girl. He watches the girl for days afterward, waiting, wandering, unable to help. Shizuka is away, far away, at the time; an archery tournament demands his presence in Kyoto. Kimihiro is thus left alone.
He follows the girl. She is young and happy. Her house is close to the shop and her school is close to his. She has a younger sister who is yet very little, and a father, and a mother, and her mother's younger sister who lives with them for now. He watches. He waits.
The darkness grows around her, bigger and more sinister the longer it lingers. It will break upon her soon. She has some strength to withstand it but not much; she is not like Kimihiro, cursed with power. But it seems she is cursed anyhow.
She lives in an old house, traditional but poorly kept. They are a very modern family and in the details the mismatch shows. The truth is always told by the details in the picture: the doors left ajar, the shoji when ripped left unrepaired for days, the untrimmed gardens, the unkempt roof tiles. The Doumeki family's temple is a model of tradition as much as this house is of tradition in neglect.
One day, Kimihiro notices the odd arrow pierced into the roof. It is the same day he approaches her.
"Excuse me," she says, slipping past him into the bookstore. His eyes water and his throat crawls as he catches whiff of the darkness.
"You dropped this," he calls out to her, handing over the kerchief. Their fingers brush and the darkness stills.
"Thank you," she says, meeting his eyes at last. She is pleasant, he thinks, and will grow very beautiful soon. Her spiritual strength shines in her eyes. He wonders for how long the darkness has followed her. She does not even know.
He hurries out of the bookstore and into the evening sun. Concrete is grey beneath his feet. His steps are fast and he manages a corner before the darkness is upon him. He has lured it away.
It converges around him in a tight and cold embrace, the echo of a hundred thousand voices gliding across his skin. Power, it whispers. Power, it sees. Power we must join with us by the breath and the blood. He struggles against it, digging his head in. Reaching, searching, groping for the seed. It is velvet in this deep. His power shields him, bolsters him as the darkness tries to drown him. It closes over his head just as he pulls in his last clean breath. He feels hands against his neck, around his neck, cold and draining his consciousness. He begins to sink.
Not yet, he thinks. Not yet, not yet, just a little more, just a little and I'll find it—
Give us your power, it says.
No. I refuse.
Because if he doesn't, he will die.
No. I refuse.
Because if he doesn't, the girl will die too.
No. I refuse.
Because if he doesn't, the darkness will win and take him and then return to take the girl as well. So he needs to find the seed, the root, pull it out and crush it so it will wither away. So she will be safe.
His fingers brush against it now, small and rough and round. With the last of his strength, he pulls and squeezes until it cracks between his fingers. The darkness screams in agony. The hands fall away. He takes a deep, starving breath.
When he opens his eyes, night has fallen. He sits slumped in a darkened alley. The street outside his quiet. He stands and touches his neck where red welts are beginning to form. His hand stays there until he arrives home at the shop to be welcomed by Mokona and Shizuka. The archery tournament has concluded today. It will be a few days hence when the old man walks into the shop.
He tells them of the girl and the darkness over dinner. Come the next day, he goes with Shizuka to the girl's house. When the family is away, they retrieve the arrow on the roof and dispose of it by fire and salt. The next he passes her by, she lacks her spiritual strength. Crushing the seed had taken a considerable amount of energy from Kimihiro, but she had paid him back by giving up her own power. Her curse is lifted and she never even knows. Kimihiro never finds out her name.
The marks on his neck where the darkness had pressed hardest are a symbol of the power he had gotten from her. She had protected him as he had protected her and together they had given fruit to a new determination. It was the first time he drove away the darkness on his own. The marks on his neck resemble the spread wings of a butterfly.
When Shizuka returns with sake after the old man had flown away, the marks are gone. Shizuka notices.
"They were borrowed," he tells his friend. "There was a customer."
"You dealt with it alone," Shizuka frowns, but She sweeps in and steals a cryptic smile.
"Worry not, Doumeki-kun," She says then, "for what was borrowed will be returned when the time is right and the need is dire. It is good to have investments kept in higher places."
That night is among the last nights they spend together.
Her leaving is sudden and without explanation. One moment She is, and the next no more. He longs for Her voice and Her touch and Her presence. She is all he knows, all he has hoped for as a lonely little child. She is his mother as Shizuka is a brother and Himawari a sister. She is his friend. She is his saviour.
She had plucked him out of his life of fear and misery. She had taught him to stand and fight. She had taught him to listen, to give and to take, to judge and be judged, to love and be loved. She, for so long, had anchored his life.
He does not ask for a lot, because doing so disobeys time and space, and such disobedience betrays what she has taught him.
His only true wish—his yearning, his waiting, his one true regret—is the silence of their parting.
There is yet so much he has to say.
It is night once more when he wakes. She holds him as he lays against her chest. The fabric of her kimono is vibrant and grotesque under the moonlit sky. They are spread on the grass in the garden, her arms slender against his, the line of her wrist a slope no artist can perfect.
"You never even gave me the chance to thank you," he says.
The spells breaks at his breath. He closes his eyes. She breathes against his shoulder.
"The house in which you dwell is haunted by demons," and the voice is not her voice but the voice of the darkness. It is a deep calm, velvet. It is all-encompassing. He looks up to the sky but they have picked out all the stars, picked out all the stars!—there is only one left. The darkness converges overhead.
He struggles against her, this false her, in the depths of the darkness. He dares not breathe it in. She is false, false, false—he watches her transform, her arms thinning and her body bulging and her fingers diminishing into painted claws pale as thread. Cobwebs spin around him as he falls even deeper and only she shines, bright and white, her body sleek in the likeness of a spider. He dares not breathe.
Suspended in space, she opens her wide maw and laughs an inhuman, crushing laughter. "Foolish human fooled by his own heart. Foolish yearning, foolish, foolish!"
This time the darkness grips him tighter than before—and there is no seed to pluck. He keens and his vision swims. His arms flounder; his feet kick. A rock cuts his leg and the cobwebs soak up the blood.
"Give me your power, human," she says. "Give it to me."
Tears streak down his cheeks in pain, in pain. He can feel the blood being drained, the power being taken, the very fabric of his soul threatening to shred into pieces, the threads straining, coming loose, and only one star remains in the sky, only one. A claw takes his chin and tilts his head back and the claw is cold like lightning against his skin. It traces his neck.
"Your blood, when I spill it, will sustain my web for centuries. Your blood will be the pearls upon which I will feed. Give it to me," she croons. "Give me your power."
The darkness is absolute.
"I have a wish," Shizuka says, but his words are lost upon Kimihiro. There is only the heady breath of sakura in full bloom and the linger of sake. Mokona sits idle on a pillow and the children are playing outside.
"You don't need to do this," he says to his friend. He knows what Shizuka wants, what Shizuka hopes to achieve. He has known from the very start.
"Yes," Shizuka says. "Yes, I do."
Kimihiro closes his eyes and is helpless against fate. Beneath his skin, he is bound to the shop, and he feels it responding to the call. A client has a wish. We exist to fulfil it. It thrums warm beneath his fingertips.
"I wish," Shizuka says, "to free a friend from physical confinement. My mortality I am willing to pay."
Shizuka is a grown man now, broad-shouldered and serious. But he has always been serious, even young. He remembers long ago when they were both very young and together ran in sync with the rolling of time. There are plenty of memories between them, promises broken and kept, words said and unsaid. He has never truly thanked Shizuka for all of it, but now he will have to.
Kimihiro lifts his hand and passes it over Shizuka's face. A faint dust lifts above them and gathers to form a blade. It hovers between them, this ochre and golden blade, before it falls to sever a thick rope of power. The blade is no more, Kimihiro sees. The rope is no more.
Yesterday was the day of Shizuka's graduation, who is now a professor of history and ancient Japanese literature. He is a man with a purpose, a life. Kimihiro is proud of his friend for achieving what he is not able to achieve while bound to this shop. But now Shizuka has uttered a wish, and for it the price is paid.
"Your wish has been granted," Kimihiro says. He still does not open his eyes.
But Shizuka takes his hand. Shizuka pulls him up. Shizuka takes him outside where the sakura petals dance in the breeze and the light, oh, the light is warm—Shizuka takes him outside to the gates and together, together, they step through.
For the first time in a long time, since She disappeared, he is walking in the light, and Shizuka is with him.
This is what Shizuka has thrown away his mortality for—thrown away time and the luxury of age, condemned forever until his death to a life without waning or release—in exchange for this, so that Kimihiro may live amongst the world once more. They are now both frozen in time. They now cease to age, but together.
Passersby walk the street as they stand by the gates. They are unnoticed. Shizuka still holds his hand. He now has to thank his friend, truly thank his friend, except he cannot, because his words refuse to come. He is so grateful. He is crying.
He is alive.
Today, he still has not thanked him.
The one star—not a star—descends from the sky. It is not a star at all. It is a soft, red light, fluttering. Breath stutters in his lungs as the monarch butterfly returns to his soul. He swallows the light and opens his mouth.
The darkness screams.
His fingers close tight around the wooden flute in his sleeve, and as the spider screams at his impudence, he swings the flute up in an arc. Wind whistles through its holes and sharp, empty sound shreds the darkness into tatters. She retreats, the spider retreats, but he staggers after her, tearing her cobwebs apart. He tears them with each slash and brandish, with the notes of his anguish. When he finally stabs her head with the flute, she cracks, and groans, and crumbles away, taking the darkness with her, withered to dust.
The dust blows away as ash in the wind. The house is empty now. The ruins are ruins. A shred of her kimono lays the ground. It is beautiful, he thinks—but not every beauty is without its flaw.
Shehas still yet to return; he must live to thank her. Shizuka is still waiting at the shop; he must live to thank him, too. He keeps the piece of colourful cloth and goes home with a mended broken heart.
"The heart breaks and breaks
And grows by breaking.
It is necessary to go
Through dark and deeper dark
And not to turn."
Stanley Kunitz, "The Testing-Tree"
Written as a response to the LJ community hundred-wishes' Prompt #062: "Spider" and to Prompt Challenge #002: "Crossover." Originally published 26 Jan 2012.
Footnotes & afterthoughts: discusses the many layers of Japanese folklore, mythology, and superstition embedded within the story, as well as the multitude of symbolism within the text. Also delves into considerable fandom geekery and trolling, for those who are interested. The footnotes contain hyperlinks to supplemental images & videos that enhance the reading of this story, hence my inability to post the full content here, what with FFN's strict prohibition of hyperlinking. If you are, however, interested, the full footnotes are available on my LJ where the story was first posted. Follow this link: iluxia (dot) livejournal (dot) com / 115645 (dot) html # cutid2