Cassandra A Clarke
Wise Woman of To-shima
On the small island of To-shima, where ships steer away in fear of being swallowed by waves, where dolphin-watching is a hobby, and the road is an endless slope, the goddess of death lived in a cottage. To locals, Izanami looked like an old woman. She wore her silvery hair in a bun, clipped tightly back with a jade pin. Her face was wrinkled as etched stone. She had brown eyes that took on a shade of black whenever she exclaimed all the do's and do not do's with your flimsy heart. The locals called her: The Heart-Mender. She told them, "It's Yoko, you fool."
Death couldn't remember at what point in eternity she opened her doors to strangers, stocking up on all kinds of tea for visits, but here she was, sipping a cup of sake in her kitchen, waiting for them. This was Death's only hobby: heart-mending. Reaping was thankless work. All that took was a touch of her hand, then like a snowflake on the tip of tongue, they were gone.
Death tried to focus on her work. It was fairly straightforward. When to take a soul and when to turn one away was a feeling to act on; but it got tongue-tied difficult when a local came seeking love advice from her with the smell of death clinging to their skin. Console? Reap?
Most of the time Death wanted to take them; she wanted all of them as hers. But she had a balance to keep. She believed in objectivity, in rules, because if she didn't, who would? Life certainly didn't. She knew because she was once married to him. He only cared for himself.
Today, it was raining. That was all it took to think of him, of life, of that Izanagi, that brute who had left her here on earth, that left her to be the clean-up crew of mankind for all eternity. Rain fell against her window as she sipped her sake. She looked outside at the cherry blossoms, beginning to unfold. She thought of how the souls unreaped would be like the mud, sliding, slipping into each other. To quit would be as simple as: No. But Death knew that no was never a simple word. Yoko sensed a soul approaching. She put down her sake and opened her front door. There, a young women stood, sobbing. Yoko inhaled. From the woman's smell she could estimate how much life the woman had in her. I'll give it three days, she thought, but it should be more like thirty-two years. Heartache. Pills? Yoko shook her head, amazed at how so many people walked to Death's door, early and uninvited. This one would be a tough case.
"Yoko-sama?" The woman asked, shivering. "The, uh, Heart-Mender?"
Yoko cringed at that second name. She stared at the woman. Rain poured off the emerald edge of Yoko's awning, dripping onto the woman's pale face. Mascara dripped down her cheeks. "My name is Nagashima Aika," the woman said. Yoko sighed, and pulled her inside.
Yoko took her drenched coat and hung it on the rack by the door.
"I went to Inokashira Park, and something happened," Aika said.
You want to die, Death thought, but restrained herself from saying it. Death never made early appointments. She never listened to pleas or bargains, never made bribes or games, though she did love a game of Go. Aika, she had to wait. People couldn't just quit before their time or it would cause problems! Yoko couldn't just take them. If she did, they'd turn into ghosts. Shrilling beings, capable of touch, of bending will. She had enough of those to look after at night.
"Shoes," Yoko said, pointing to the mud lacing Aika's boots.
Aika took off her boots, placing them by the door. Yoko walked towards the bamboo cabinets that were just polished and smelt of rosewater. Yoko pulled out a tea-pot, tea-cups, and tin of tea. Yoko opened the tin, breathing in the earthy aroma with hints of peaches. Smiling, she filled the pot with water and set it upon the stove. Yoko watched Aika pace back and forth.
"Inokashira Park, you say?" Yoko asked, hoping this would make her stop moving so damn much, like her feet were on fire. Yoko could arrange that.
The woman nodded, beginning to pick at her manicured nail beds.
That's Benzaiten's territory, Yoko thought. Benzi, the goddess of luck, and desire, spent (of all ways) her days lounging by the river in her golden arched temple, separating lovers who rowed by, feeding off their sweat and kisses. Gave that eternal body jellyrolls. Humans were always spilling apart. They bled. They cried. They sweat. And to think that love, that's what lets them exist for this short time without slipping all over the universe, crying like children we forgot? If it works, why ruin it? The kettle whistled, stirring Yoko from her thoughts.
"Did you hear me, Yoko-sama?" Aika asked.
"I'm not deaf," Yoko said.
"I sailed from Tokyo," Aika said. "I cancelled my meetings. I told my clients to find other public defenders. I walked ten miles in the rain, in Gucci boots, all to be ignored?"
"You just got here," Yoko said, staring at Aika like she was an ant under a magnifying glass, until the woman sighed and said, "I'm tired. I just, I heard you can fix hearts. Is that true? That must have sounded ridiculous. It's just, my...Akiyo once told me of a woman that his mom met. Said she was the only reason his father never left. I met them a couple times. I don't think I'd ever seen two people more put together. And, he said it was like magic after that visit."
"People say a lot of things," Yoko said. "I'm sure you've heard it, as a lawyer."
"And I'd call that misdirection."
"Do they still have balloon animal makers at Inokashira Park? I got a frog once."
"I don't know," Aika said.
"Well," Yoko sighed, "I'm guessing you knew the legend. Though you look like someone who thinks tales are for children. Take a rowboat ride on the lake near the jealous goddess and lose your lover. You could have gone elsewhere."
"You don't honestly think...oh. I don't mean to dishonor you. I understand this is your home, but is it safe for you to live alone at this age? Do you have someone I can call?"
Yoko looked to the blue flames on the pilot of the stove, extinguishing it with her eyes. She turned, facing Aika. "Didn't tales bring you to me?" She asked. "Do you often switch truths around to benefit yourself?" Yoko placed the porcelain tea-pot on the table beside the two cups. She poured a cup for Aika, and one for herself. Yoko sat, sipping it as she listened to the rain's dance outside. Aika slammed her hand on the table. Yoko made no sudden jump. Soon, as she predicted, Aika covered her face, sobbing. "Weren't you ever married?" Aika asked.
"Once," Yoko said, watching the tea-leaves spin dizzily in her cup.
"If you could, wouldn't you do anything to get him back?"
"He was my paralegal." Aika said, taking her cup of tea in her hands, cradling it. "If I needed proof, he'd find it for me. He'd do anything. Now, he won't talk to me at work, except about cases. It's like, he's never loved me, as if someone cut out that part. I want it back."
"It sounds like you just miss being loved."
"It's not about me."
"Isn't it?" The rain is slowing down. It'll stop soon, then go."
Yoko walked to her back door, and stepped out into the rain.
From the hill in the backyard, Yoko could see the tip of Mt. Miyatsuka-yama pierce the thundering clouds as if the mountain was a steeple to the heavens above. It was.
In Yoko's town, there were no taxis or buses here, just roads sloping closer and closer to that volatile point, as if everything around them begged them to walk up to heaven. Izanagi once told her the reason he stayed in this village, out of all the islands they made, is that it felt like heaven's driveway. He loved this island for how the earth swelled around it with possibility.
"Why would you leave me like that?" Aika asked.
Yoko turned around to see Aika standing there, hands waving.
"You didn't want to listen."
"Look, I'm sorry. It's just, you were being rude."
"Are you apologizing to me, or just defending yourself? I'm going for a walk."
As Yoko continued to hike, she could hear Aika groaning as her toes stuck into the ooze of mud, sliding to gravel. Yoko leapt not like an old woman, but like lightning. As hours passed, Aika lacked the strength to complain. The rain slowed to a drizzle. They hiked higher and higher, until they came to a woods with bunches of camellia trees. Their branches spiraled upwards to the sky, gnarled like clenched fists. Crouching beneath an arm of a tree, Yoko waited for Aika.
Aika's hair looked like the tattered wings of a raven. Yoko tried not to smile, but couldn't help it. Aika had nerve. But she'd need more of it. A lot more if she wanted to conquer love.
"Are you smiling?" Aika asked, falling beside the old woman's feet.
"You're persistent," Yoko said. "I like that."
"Do people pay you for this? Is that your angle? Wise seeming old woman who throws desperate people into the mud until they hear phrases that change their life?"
"You followed me," Yoko said.
Yoko ran her fingers along the trunk of a tree, ruffling the moss as if it was the fur of a kitten, as if all of nature was that close to her. It used to be. The moss grayed at her touch, and she frowned at the thought of her life drained by her touch. Aika jumped backwards.
"What was that? How did?"
"What you saw was the touch of ending," Yoko said. "Your love was cursed."
"Can you fix it? What will it take?"
"Can I tell you a story?"
"That's it?" Aika asked.
Aika nodded. "OK. Of course."
Sometimes Death revealed what she was. She'd always erase the memory, but for a moment, it felt nice to be exactly what she was to those who might need to see it.
Aika's cell phone buzzed. She looked at her pocket.
"Go. Work then," Yoko said.
"No, no," Aika said, grabbing Yoko's wrist.
People weren't supposed to touch Death. Yoko could see the woman in front of her the way she should be, the way she should live, hair grayed, dropping plates in the kitchen, breaking, so that the noise would wake up Akiyo who'd be slumped over paperwork again, bleary-eyed, tired of being underpaid. He'd yell, words like throwing salt into wounds. Aika saw it too.
"Was that me?" Aika asked. "Is that how we end? Miserable?"
Aika wiped her face, smearing black like soot on her cheeks. Yoko could see the other alternative, too. Aika would leave her. She would take the pills hidden in her jacket this night, and join the rest of Yoko's companions, haunting the isle of To-shima, asking for help, scaring the children playing around the shore, learning to fish, tempting men to come swim, forever. In that second, Yoko could see the hand of a local boy, Makio, disappearing under waves. A four year old clasping onto Aika. Her hands like kelp wrapped around his thin torso.
"There are many alternatives," Yoko said.
"Maybe it is better that he left me."
"I met Akiyo's parents," Yoko said. "They too had troubles. Most do."
This led Aika to stop shaking. "You remember them, really?"
"Haru, and Michio were their names," Yoko said. "Michio was a fisherman. Haru worked at the silk mill. Michio died of pneumonia due to work. Haru died of heartbreak."
"How did they end up okay?" Aika asked.
"I told them my story. I told them to learn from my story."
"I'll give anything for an extra day with him."
"Hold onto everything. That is yours."
Aika's cell rang again. Aika threw it into a nearby muddy pool.
In the beginning of time, the clouds mixed heaven and earth together. One tumultuous, rolling cloud that spanned eons of motions, of moments. And then the clouds began to shift, growing darker, heavier. Those were the clouds of mud. They dropped below and made earth. The others, like feathers rose and stitched together to form the sky above our heads. Between the sky and the earth, the feathers and the mud, there was a green sprout that bloomed.
The green sprout opened up with Izanagi, the creator. And then, from the same bud he broke off a petal and formed Izanami, his wife. Together they hurled spears into the ocean and pulled them out, the water dripping off to form islands, and then coasts, and then mountains.
And so it went, until the two grew lonely. They decided what could fill that would be a child, but Izanami, during her birth of their first son, died. She departed into Yomi, the land of the dead with its stalactites and shadows and insects being birthed underfoot of the earth.
The death was a matter of course, no one's fault. Together they created that, too, but Izanagi took the blame, considering himself the reason why his beloved died, why death existed at all in this world. It wasn't his fault, but he wouldn't listen. He never did, truth be told.
And so Izanagi went to Yomi, furious, determined to get his bride back to the earth, to create by her side and dance with her in the rain, as they had done for eons.
In the shadows, Iznami walked back and forth, forgetting words, movement, disintegrating into blackness, into shadows of shadows. And so when Izanagi appeared in Yomi, she was shocked, moved enough to remember how to speak, hello, she said, though it came out like whispers of whispers. Izanagi closed his eyes, and he could see the words he couldn't hear. He searched for the words to keep him, his light, from suffocating into the hungry nothingness.
my love, Izanagi said.
what are you doing here, Iznami said. you can't be here.
but I am.
what good's that going to do?
i won't leave without you.
don't be ridiculous. go.
don't you. i'm here. don't you want to see me?
you can't see me like this.
i will wait.
you're impossible. you can't wait forever. i will come out and see you, but i need to rest in my bedroom. don't come in. when i have enough strength to leave, i'll come find you.
Izanagi promised not to come in to see her, but after a year had passed, he had grown impatient. He began to feel even worse and worse about her. And so he opened her bedroom door. Izanami laid in the bed. He could see her chest rising and falling. He wanted to cradle his chin in her collarbone, run his hands through her hair, latch onto her hips and hold tight.
In a swarm of feeling, Izanagi took the comb out of his raven-colored haired bound back into a bun. He thought of a match and one appeared in his hand. He lit the comb afire as a torch to see by, to awaken his lover and find her in her shadows, and save her from them.
Izanami awoke, howling. The torch lit her face and in her eyes were not eyes but maggots swarming out of them, and ants crawling around her flesh that had decayed around milky-bone.
Izanagi staggered backwards. All of his hope, his love, his fury for a second chance dissipated in the name of fear, and he ran. Izanami howled louder, and jumped out of bed. From around her bed she summoned the shikome, the furies, the hags, the teeth and claw of women.
why didn't you wait? all you had to do was listen, you idiot!
get away from me. you're not her.
we were so close. we could have had eternity.
"Have you heard this one before?" Yoko asked.
"Oh, because I'm Japanese I'm supposed to know every myth? I'm Catholic."
"Let's stop here," Yoko said, and the two sat at the base of Mt. Miyatsuka-yama.
"Don't tell me we're gonna climb that thing?"
"No," Yoko said. "I'm...we're not allowed up there."
Izanagi ran. He pulled out his black headdress and threw it upon the ground, leaving a trail of grapes for the shikome to stumble upon, and stop to eat. You wouldn't think food would be a weapon in Hell, but imagine a place where your hope and thirst and all sense of possibility, of light, of warm milk, of baked bread, all that is familiar and warm is taken away. There, food becomes the memory of a world. There, food becomes the thing to wretch the gut into pain.
please, just, listen.
Izanami shouted over the sound of her furies biting into the grapes, squeezing its sweet juice down their chapped throats. The women lifted their heads, and seeing Izanami's claws, dropped their grapes and ran after Izanagi again. He stumbled, and one grabbed his ankle, and so he threw out his toothed-comb and as it struck the shadows it sprouted up into bamboo shoots.
And the hands of shadows descended again, licking their lips, biting the shoots. But at this point, Izanami's anger had swelled and thundered, and with her walk, she brought thunder and lightning behind her, approaching her lover that wouldn't listen, that couldn't ever listen.
Izanagi reached into his satchel and pulled out three peaches he had brought, unsure of how long his journey into Hell would take and maybe the two would have wanted a snack. He threw the peaches, one by one into the darkness and as he did their plump, orange form swelled into three suns, bursting through the shadows, shattering them with shards of light.
Izanami fell backwards.
Izanagi took this moment to take a boulder and cover the entrance to Yomi, enough so that none behind the boulder could escape and travel to earth.
how many times must i die for you? i will kill for this. i will kill for every life you create, and in that second you will feel my touch on your face, disappearing, again and again.
"Life created death, and the union of two is what our world is made out of, whether we like it or not. One could not exist without the other, but the two weren't meant to unite."
"It didn't have to be like that," Aika said. "He had specific directions."
"She didn't have to summon the shikome into existence," Yoko said.
"And he could have kept his comb in his stupid hair," Aika said, eyes fuming as if the man in the story was really her love, and not Yoko's. That strike of anger made Yoko smile.
This was how Death failed. She fell in love with pain.
"Akiyo," Aika said, leaning up against the rock."He was with me for...everything. He woke me up when I had to get to work. He held my hair up when I puked into the toilet after drinking too much at my father's wake. He was there, undeniably, always. He was home."
Yoko watched her words, how they brought color and life to her.
"All the other men in the office talked about their wives like maids. Like they were there just to keep track of their dishes, or appointments, or to dress up for the company dinners, and never even called them by name. Just 'my wife' this and 'my wife' that. He got me coffee."
"He sounds thoughtful. You want to work with him?"
"I can only see myself putting in the work with him."
Yoko knew she needed to let Aika go. She couldn't let this mortal touch her for too long. If she did, she'd create another ghost to keep her company. Aika's hair smelt of lavender.
aren't you tired of taking all i try to make?
oh their lives have nothing to do with you
Yoko clenched her fists, and closed her eyes. If she opened them, the woods around her would burst into dizzying flames. Even now she could hear her ex-husband's voice.
Yoko gripped onto the woman. Aika began to cry again.
this isn't even my choice, it's hers, Death thought to her ex-husband.
no one ever asks me to be born, they just are. i can't stop that.
you have no idea the kind of work it takes to let them go.
Yoko pushed Aika away, startling her. She didn't mean to but she could feel the fury rising within her heart and wasn't totally confident that it wouldn't sear Aika to death. It had been more than a century since Izanagi, life, tried to talk to her, to interfere in her ways.
"You can't stay with me. Go home."
Aika's eyes narrowed. Yoko knew that look, that longing for a warmth that wouldn't question, and that indignation at having someone else see it from you.
"You're right," Yoko said. "Love is work, and right now you're not working at all."
"Why are you pushing me away? I don't understand. I listened!"
Yoko lit a thistle by Aika's foot on fire with a look. The thistle sparked into a circle around Aika's feet. She looked up to Yoko as if waiting for her to stop this. When she didn't, Aika leapt away. She ran. Aika's own eyes were set aflame, but of a different kind.
Yoko closed her eyes. She thought of Inokashira Park. When she opened her eyes, she was there, inside the arched golden temple. In front of her were throw-pillows, brochures, a wooden box for incense to burn and ryos to be tossed inside. A candle was lit, flickering.
"Benzi," Yoko said. "Show yourself."
Benzaiten emerged from behind a pillar. Her glinted skin was covered with an assortment of pink and fiery red silk draped around her, ribboning her full body.
"Death? What brings you here?"
Benzi walked forwards, bowing to show respect, but careful to keep Death in her view, as the goddess of luck kept all odds in her favor. Her blue eyes glinted with gold flecks.
"I need you to release a soul. Just one."
Benzi laughed, so hard the ribbons rippled around her body like hundreds of kites.
"Akiyo Lee is his name. Release him."
"Did he cheat Death?" Benzi asked. "Is that it?" Benzi brought her fleshy palms to the sides of her face. Benzi kissed her cheek."Every time I touch you," Benzi said, "I remember how much love you contain...have you considered returning to the industry of nightmare?"
"If I say maybe, will that be enough?"
Benzi smiled, "That's my favorite word. Maybe can build worlds."
At home, Death dumped the muddied tea-leaves into the trash. She washed the porcelain pot. She took out a bottle of sake, and brought it into her backyard. Night fell in heaps around her. Death sat on her porch, watching the ghosts emerge to her left, to her right. These were her children; the ones who came to her, because elsewhere didn't want them. The first, of many, walked onto the wooden porch — a woman dressed in white, with a split open chest, Haru — and rested her head on Death's lap. Patting her wild locks, Death, polite, offered her a drink, listening to the sobbing tale, the kind that could only be retold, those words wailed like a knife to her ears, the sound no one else understood like her. No one else chooses to listen, to give up sleep.
And Death, she did her best to make them smile.