Not many people know this, but there is a small town right outside of Tokyo called Ashihara. It is a simple and humble town that could almost be mistaken for a village. Those who do know about it tend to stay away. It is not a particularly lively town, and there is not much to do, but it does have its own set of interesting stories that attract a small but sufficient bunch of tourists every year. At the heart of this town is the divine mountain Suseri. Named after the daughter of the god of storms and sea, Mt. Suseri is anything but tempestuous. The forested mountain is only a bit ominous only because of the fact it is always covered by a cloud of fog at times barely there and at other times so thick a traveler would be barely able to see his hand in front of him. There are strange tales about the mountain, most of them involving travelers who’ve returned days after they’ve gone to tell stories about being spirited away on the mountain. Other tales are not so pleasant, revolving around corpses whose hearts had been torn out or bodies with entire skeletons removed, and some of these tales aren’t just confined to the mountain either.
With so many horrifying stories, it is fortunate the town had yet to turn into a ghost town. Thankfully, at the base of the mountain lies an old Shinto shrine still run on only tradition and not for tourist-grabbing: the Inari Shrine. With ties to the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, this shrine is structured similarly with the main shrine at the mountain base with many smaller shrines scattered throughout the mountain, though unlike with its sister shrine no one dares roam up to any of the other sub-shrines on Mt. Suseri, save for a few daring tourists. But for the residents of Ashihara, superstition prevents most of them from journeying any further than the main shrine.
And yet, superstition doesn’t stop Soneura Minoru’s father from bringing him to the inner shrine just halfway up the mountain today. It’s Butsumetsu, the unluckiest day of the Japanese calendar, so the main shrine is closed today. But Minoru’s father is adamant on seeing the head priestess today, and so with only their o-mamori charms to protect them, father and son make the portentous trek lined by thousands of torii gates. Being only seven years old, Minoru has heard enough stories about the mountain to have him terrified to even be standing within the protected path. If the fog had been any thicker, he would not have stepped foot within the main shrine. Even this light mist makes the surrounding forest eerie.
He makes a move to grab tightly on to his father’s hand, but the action makes the man jump. He gives Minoru the same frightened look Minoru has been receiving from him since the day his wife had left them. Minoru is used to indifference from his father, but his father’s fear unnerves him more than he can bear. He almost cries due to the accumulating heartache from these last few weeks, but when his father albeit hesitantly holds the boy’s hand, Minoru’s frown becomes a smile. Maybe things are going to be better now…
“He can see things,” his father told the old woman. “He can see all sorts of strange things except for the one I want to find.” There is this anguish in the man’s voice as if he had lost all hope. He looks to his son who sits a bit away from the two, eating a senbei cookie while watching them interact. His father doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. His boy is so perceptive, a trait Minoru most likely inherited from his mother. His heart aches at even the mere thought of his wife.
“Are you sure this is what you want for your son?” the old priestess Hibiya asks. “Once it is done, there is no turning back.”
“He is already stuck between the two worlds,” his father further explains. “This is where he belongs. He already alienates other children his age. I am hoping he will have a better life here.”
“This is no place for children.”
A sad smile creeps onto the man’s face. “But he’s no ordinary child.” When he stands, so does Minoru. The sight almost stabs the father’s heart. “And regardless, any life without me will be a better life than any life I could give him.”
“If I need to contact you,” the priestess starts, “How―”
“I will no longer have a part in his life until I find her.” He turns to leave, only stopping when his son reaches for his hand. This time, however, the father shakes his head and slowly pries off the small hand wrapped around his. Minoru is confused, but his father steels his heart. “Be a good boy and listen well to your elders,” he tells his son this last advice before walking out the doors. He doesn’t look back not even when Hibiya has to hold the child from running after his father or when Minoru’s wails are the only sound on the quiet mountain. His heart is heavy, and the trek back down the mountain is even harder than the trek up.
Minoru cries for the next three hours, only stopping when he grows tired. As he sleeps, the old priestess watches him. With his red T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, Minoru looks out of place in this old shrine. Even Hibiya herself has forgone modern dresses and wears on a daily basis the basic traditional miko outfit―like priestesses before her, Hibiya dons the while kimono-like haori jacket and a pair of red hakama trousers with her grey hair tied back in a low ponytail with a white ribbon. She wonders how Minoru will take to living with her, if he will fit in here, and if he will accept the old traditions she lives by that so many of his peers have forgotten and will probably never learn. She wonders now about how she’ll got about teaching and raising Minoru. Ashihara’s Inari Shrine has not had a male disciple for centuries now―come to think of it, Hibiya does not even know if the shrine ever had a male disciple in all its history.
“Is this him?” a low voice grumbles.
The old priestess nods. “The son of the Soneura family… I never would have thought he’d end up here.”
“Well, I guess this is what happens when his old man decides to break the only rule his wife ever gave.” The monk squats down next to the snoozing lad, trying to get a better look at him. “He’s pale…” he observes before moving the boy’s bangs out of his face. But when the monk touches Minoru’s forehead, he recoils. “So very cold too! No doubt traits he inherited from his mother. What will you do with him? Do you plan to raise him here in the mountains? None of the other kids will ever befriend him when they find out he lives here.”
“I have no choice.” Hibiya answers solemnly. “The boy has no one else to turn to, and his father entrusted him to me. He will not be a financial burden, what with all the tenants I have and with the generous trust fund his father left for him. As for the friends issue, we’ll have to think of something. A child needs friends, Hosho, or his life will be very lonely.” Hibiya remembers the time when she was brought to the shrine long ago. Already an orphan, she had no friends. Living on a mountain no other person would go near became her biggest obstacle. Even to this day, the only friends she has are few and scarce, the monk Hosho being one of them. “What brings you here today? I highly doubt it is because of the boy.”
Unceremoniously, the monk plops the furoshiki-wrapped package he held onto the wooden floor in front of Hibiya. “From the family I told you about.” He takes out his hyoutan bottle, a small gourd-shaped jug, from the pocket hidden inside the long sleeve of his kesa robes. When the old priestess shoots him a scathing look, he does not bother to lie and say he’s drinking water. The alcoholic fragrance is too strong to deny. “It’s hakuto jelly,” he explains when Hibiya begins to unwrap the furoshiki cloth. “That family’s down payment for your skills. Their situation is getting worse. It’d be best to do the exorcism tonight.”
“An exorcism does not work well when it is Butsumetsu.”
“They know, which is why they’ve offered to double the payment. The shrine needs the money, so you must at least make the effort.”
Hibiya has never thought of turning down the family in need, but she couldn’t deny the truth Hosho spoke. The main shrine at the base of the mountain is in good condition, but the inner shrine needs to be fixed. The further up a sub shrine is, the more repairs it needs. Why, even in this very room where they sit and speak, some of the wooden floorboards have rotten away, and there are small holes in the roof that would be unnoticeable if the holes aren’t being looked for. The shrine near the top of Mt. Suseri, however, would be irreparable if work is not done on it soon.
“You will have to watch Minoru tonight.”
“Eh!? Why me?” the monk complains after downing his tenth gulp of sake. “Doesn’t Sujin live with you? Why can’t she babysit?”
“She’s out on an errand right now and won’t be back until late tonight. Need I remind you about leaving Minoru by himself tonight?”
The monk grumbles but does not argue, taking a swig from his gourd. Luckily, he has nothing better to do tonight or he’d put up more of a fight. “You owe me, Hibiya.”
When Minoru wakes up, the moon is already out. Laying on a futon, he sees the night sky through the opened shoji doors. He gathers that he’s probably in one of the inner rooms since the opened shoji doors lead to what appears to be a small garden. He wonders if he is still in the shrine or in a different building. He’s not tired anymore, so he decides to explore. His curiosity naturally has him crawling out of bed and peeking through the gap between the doors. But before he has a chance to see outside, the doors shut. He tries to slide them open again but to no avail. On his third try, he catches something out of the corner of his eyes. At the far right side of one of the doors, a pair of eyeballs are painted next to a small hole in the shoji paper. They’re very lifelike, so Minoru goes closer to inspect them. He must still be tired, he thinks―the pupils seem to be following his every movement! His curiosity getting the better of him, with a finger extended, he pokes one of the eyeballs. He recoils immediately. The eye he touched had felt real and squishy, but that isn’t all. As soon as he poked the eye in its pupil, an eyelid had closed upon it! Minoru only screams when another pair appears. And another! And another! Soon, the shoji door is covered with these eyeballs, some fully opened, some heavy-lidded, but they all stare at him.
Minoru almost tears the rice paper of the fusuma door as he bolts into the hall and slide the door shut. It is not the hallway he runs into, however. It is another bed room. Because the Soneura house was a traditional abode, Minoru suspects that the room he slept in had been a part of this room until someone, probably the old priestess, put a fusuma divider in between. The room does not seem to be the old priestess’s, though. The room looks far too cluttered, though Minoru supposes that could just be the result of downsizing the room. But the brightly-colored and intricately-patterned kimono hanging on the folding byoubu screen with crimson spider lilies and the various golden kanzashi hair ornaments on the short-legged chabudai table tell the younger boy a girl much younger than the priestess lives here.
His suspicions are confirmed when he sees a painting hanging in the alcove. The painting is a tad faded out, so it must be old, but whoever had gave it life truly had a talent. The girl pictured in watercolors looks no older than Minoru. She’s a young girl that would be the essence of the word cute with a round face, large eyes, and an angelic smile. If Minoru had been older and more learned, he would realize that this painting was not painted anytime recent. But be that it is, Minoru is only seven years old, and so he thinks gladly to himself, perhaps I will have a friend!
His happy thought is interrupted when there is a knock―a knock where though? It sounds very loud, but one does not knock on shoji or fusuma doors. So where is it coming from? Just when the noise stops, it starts again. Ton-ton-ton, the knock always goes in three slow steady beats. There’s a pause, but then it goes ton-ton-ton again. A part of the little boy is scared, but nothing can be more terrifying than that wall of eyeballs. And yet, when he tries to slide open another pair of fusuma doors, the eyeballs appear again. Minoru instantly backs away, but if he were not so frightened then he would have noticed that the eyes were trying to tell him in the voiceless whisper they managed, “Stay inside. Don’t go outside. It’s dangerous.” The warning, the young lad cannot hear, but he musters what little courage he has and slides the fusuma door open. He has found the hallway, and the knocking gets louder. It takes a while for Minoru to find a door that leads out into the mountain and not the enclosed garden, but even then he only manages to find a back door, not the front.
A man is there, a conical straw hat covering the upper part of his face. “Come,” he tells the boy. “It is not safe.” He says no more and turns on the path leading away from the house.
Minoru thought the man to be strange, but he follows the monk. He’d take the strange monk over the wall of eyeballs any day. He follows the monk far from the house and away from the torii-marked paths because the monk says it’d be quicker down the mountain through the forest. Minoru doesn’t mind that the walk back to town seems to take him further and further away from the protection of the torii gates, but he doesn’t know the dangers of straying from the protected pathways. With small legs, though, Minoru gets tired easily and, when he still sees only trees and no sign of the town, he finally asks the monk whose back has been turned to him this whole time, “When will we get there?”
The monk stops and laughs. It is a cruel laugh that sends shivers down Minoru’s spine. The boy wants to return to the house now, but the trees in all directions look the same. He does not know how to go back.
“I’m afraid that I have tricked you, little boy.” The monk takes off the hat, throwing it to the side. With the light of the lantern, Minoru sees how the monk’s skin begins to turn blue. “You will not be going anywhere.” Just as the monk’s eyes close, a third eye on the middle of his forehead opens. “You’re going to fill my tummy!”
Minoru is screaming before the monk lunges. The little boy falls to the ground, but the monk demon stops mid-lunge, a squelchy cracking noise fills the air. Minoru sees it then what the monk is looking down at, a bulge in the monk’s chest. The bulge is gone, and the monk falls to the ground, his three eyes opened but blank.
“Pathetic thing,” a toneless but silvery voice says. “I’m gone for but a day, and he thinks he can pull one right under my nose…” The woman in the foreign crimson kimono squats down to examine the dead monk, the beating heart in her hand a brighter crimson than her flowery knee-length dress. She finally realizes Minoru is watching her and the corpse with wide eyes seconds later. Her close-set, upturned eyes watch him in amusement as she takes a bite out of the demon’s heart. There’s a loud squishy noise as she bites into the organ and, as she chews, the blood on her lips make her pale face look even paler. “If you want to run, little boy, I’m not gonna stop you,” she tells him. “Just know that, without me, you won’t be able to find your way back to the house and another demon will come eat you.” She takes another bite out of the monk’s heart.
Minoru winces at the disgusting noise, but her eating a heart does not scare him, not after his near death experience. “You will not eat me?”
She raises a thin eyebrow. “Who says I won’t?” She throws the organ away and, in a blink of any eye, she’s in front of Minoru, stroking his cheek. “Just because I usually don’t take little boys’ hearts doesn’t mean I’ll be able to resist the temptation this time. Many other kitsune do, so why must I forgo that simple pleasure?” Her hands find his shoulders and push him to the ground. She’s on top of him and, with her kimono collar wrapping around her shoulder blades, the front of her kimono dips low enough for Minoru to blush as red as the dress. The lady giggles. “If only you were older…” she sighs. “I would have so much fun…” And she’s back to the corpse’s side, wiping her blood-covered hand on the monk’s robes.
The sound of wooden sandals hitting the forest floor come closer. “Did you find him?”
At the appearance of yet another monk, Minoru scoots closer to the fox-demon lady. She doesn’t want to eat him, right? Minoru, though young, knows that if she had really wanted to make a snack out of him then she would have already done so.
“Yes, I have successfully cleaned up your mess yet again, Hosho,” the woman drawls. She dusts off her dress as she stands, taking hold of the stick the demon monk had used to carry the lantern. Clearly illuminated by the light, Minoru sees that she resembles the painting he had seen earlier. There goes his hopes of finding a friend…
“Come on, gimme a break, Sujin!” the monk pleas, smart enough to put away his liquor gourd when the woman narrows her eyes. “I only left him by himself because I thought he’d sleep through to morning!”
“You didn’t bother to check on him afterwards, you drunkard. Just wait until I tell Hibiya. The old biddy will throw a fit when she finds out you couldn’t stay sober for a few hours to babysit a defenseless boy.”
“I wasn’t getting drunk! I was trying to find ways to earn money for the shrine. If the mokumokuren could just stay in one place long enough for me to pluck out a pair of eyes―”
“Yes because that worked out so well last time.” She pinches the bridge of her nose, obviously having had enough of this conversation. “Just bring him home while I deal with the remains of the aobouzu.”
Hosho finally gives the corpse a good look and blanches. “You took out its heart in front of the kid? You could have scarred him for life!”
She shrugs. “It’s not like he wasn’t enjoying watching me eat it.”
“Oh, he was enjoying watching something alright,” the monk teases, his eyes roaming at how low the kimono collar is. “Not you eating though.”
A ball of fire is summoned and thrown at him. To Sujin’s dismay, the perverted monk manages to dodge her attack. She takes a step, but a hand latches onto the hem of her kimono. “Go with the monk, kiddo,” she tells him not in a terribly kind way.
Minoru does not let go, however. He shakes his head and moves even closer, hiding behind Sujin’s leg as he stares warily at the monk.
“I won’t eat you, Minoru-chan,” Hosho says with a smile. The smile does the opposite of what it’s supposed to and the boy’s grip tightens on the silk fabric.
Knowing she has no other choice, Sujin sighs. “Looks like you scare little kids, Hosho,” she teases but in an exasperated voice. “You take care of the body”―in a swift movement, she pries Minoru’s hand off her kimono and takes his hand into her own―“I’ll take the kid home.” With her free hand, she grabs the lantern and begins the walk back to the house before the monk argues with her.
The forest seems even more frightening now than when Minoru had followed the aobouzu. On the lookout for other demons, even the hoo-hoo of an owl has Minoru on edge. In the darkness, the tall trees cave in on the two travelers, and the forest is never-ending. The light from the lantern casts long shadows onto the looming branches, and where they stood only a few steps ago is swallowed by the following blackness. Sujin’s patience with the kid runs out when he yelps at the sound of snapping twig. Kneeling down and putting the lantern aside, she grabs Minoru by the waist before hoisting him to hold him as if he were sitting on her forearm. She hands him the lantern, telling him she cannot hold both him and their light source.
“Don’t think I’m doing this again,” she warns him, but she softens when the boy holds her hand and nuzzles himself into her warm embrace.
It is the first time in weeks that Minoru has felt this safe and this happy. Maybe, just maybe, he can start getting used to living on this haunted mountain…