BY THE RIVER HI
When Izanagi used the Heavenly Sword, Ame no Ohabari, to behead Kagutsuchi, it marked the end of the world’s creation and the beginning of death.
Eight deities were born from the baby’s blood that dripped from the sword. The first three were formed from what fell from the double-edged tip onto the pebbles. They became rock deities living on hills and in caves. The next three were created from the blood which fell from the middle of the blade onto large rock masses, and they became mountain deities that swiftly rode the winds and guarded the tallest peaks.
The final two were born from the blood that leaked from the hilt of the sword through Izanagi’s fingers. They were Kuraokami, the Dragon of Rain and Snow, who flew through the sky and settled on the highest peak of Mount Hotaka, and Kura-mitsuha, the Dark Water Snake.
When Kura-mitsuha was born, he looked like a young child with charcoal gray skin, watching the world with wonder. He had absorbed Izanagi’s wrath and rage, and his aura was void of light. The grass beneath his feet withered and died, and every living being he touched turned to dust. Disgusted with himself for creating such evil, Izanagi banished Kura-mitsuha from his sight.
The boy god sought friendship from his seven brothers, but they refused to have anything to do with him. The other gods chased him out of Takamagahara, afraid to harbor his filth under the canopy of Heaven. They beat him with their sticks and attacked him with their powers, until he ran away crying, not understanding why he was so unwanted.
Kura-mitsuha crossed the bridge between worlds without a backward glance, and he landed on a beach by the River Hi, near an orchard of plum trees. The spring blooms covered each branch, and he couldn’t look away from their beauty. But he refrained from touching the petals, for he knew his contact would kill the tree.
He heard voices at the beach and went to investigate. Four human children were playing in the sand. They were laughing and enjoying each other’s company, and their sounds made Kura-mitsuha curious. He had never played with anyone before, and he wanted to know how it felt to laugh. He approached the children shyly and asked if he could join them.
But his appearance stood in the way. His fingers ended in long sharp claws and fangs protruded from his mouth. His shoulder-length hair coiled like snakes, and his shiny dark gray skin resembled the scales of an eel.
The children took one look at him and began to scream. They called him a demon and threw rocks at him, and he ran away sobbing, taking shelter under a bridge. His young life had already been a long lesson in the heartbreak of loneliness.
Centuries passed and he learned how to live in isolation. He became bitter toward humans and gods alike, and he made sure to stay out of their way.
Kura-mitsuha liked the shore of the River Hi. In the early morning, he played on the deserted beach, collecting shells of creatures long gone. Creatures he could not harm with his darkness. The beach’s white sand had no plants that could wither. He spent the evenings in the plum orchard. In autumn, the trees bore purple fruit that rolled on the sand near his feet. They looked plump and juicy, and Kura-mitsuha wondered if he could touch them.
The happiest day in his life until that point was when he dared himself to pick up one of the plums. To his surprise, it didn’t disintegrate at his touch, so he decided to try to eat it. Not being accustomed to eating fruit, he choked on the seed, and the sand on the plum’s skin crunched in his teeth. Thinking he must not be doing it right, he picked up another plum, rinsed it in the river, and tore it in half. This time, it was divine.
One day, a lustrous young god with skin like milk arrived on the beach, startling Kura-mitsuha out of his wits. The god didn’t appear older than a human child himself, and he would have passed for one if not for his golden eyes. Kura-mitsuha had been playing with the shell of a large crab, humming a song he’d heard from the fishermen.
“Who are you singing to?” the young god asked.
Kura-mitsuha jumped and began scurrying away from him.
“Wait, where are you going?”
“Far away from you,” he said.
“Aren’t you going to mock me and chase me away anyway?”
“Why would I do that?” the god asked with a frown.
“Then what are you doing here? You should be in Takamagahara, not in the land of humans.”
“Why aren’t you in Takamagahara?”
“They don’t want me there.”
His questions were exhausting. “Because they think I’m ugly and evil.”
The young god tilted his head. “I don’t think you’re ugly.”
He shook his head and looked out at the river. “Would you like to go for a swim?”
“You want to play with me?” Kura-mitsuha asked, afraid to hope.
Kura-mitsuha was befuddled for a moment. This was new to him. What was he supposed to say? He wondered if he should offer a gift to show his gratitude. “Would you like a plum?”
They ventured out in the water together, and then after their swim, they stretched on the beach to dry under the sun.
“What is your name?” the god asked. “I am Susanoo, son of Izanagi and brother to Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi. I was born to become the God of Storms. But later, when I’m older. Father says I’m still too little. I need to grow into my power.”
“I’m… Kura-mitsuha,” he said. “I don’t know what I was born to be.”
“Hmmm,” Susanoo said.
“Your name is too long. Can I change it?”
Kura-mitsuha shrugged. He didn’t care for his name. It was only associated with vile and demonic.
“I will call you Kuramu. Do you like it?”
“What does it mean?”
Kura-mitsuha had never felt dazzling. He was the embodiment of darkness, and everything he touched died. There was nothing dazzling about that.
From that day forward, he became Kuramu, Susanoo’s friend.
The God of Storms was wild and passionate, and that often got them into trouble. Most of the time, Kuramu was the one blamed. “Fate aids the courageous,” Susanoo goaded Kuramu whenever he hesitated to follow his friend into mischief.
Once, they stole two dragons from the Wind God’s personal stables to ride them across the sky and see the world as eagles saw it, and Fūjin chased them with his bag of winds and blew them into the sea. Another time, Susanoo scattered horse shit in Amaterasu’s halls while Kuramu kept watch, and the Sun Goddess stormed after them, shooting arrows and wounding Susanoo in the leg. Kuramu nursed him back to health and convinced him not to take vengeance on his sister.
Millennia passed, and Kuramu and Susanoo grew into their powers. They no longer looked like children, but handsome, powerful, and tempestuous young men. Susanoo spent more time with Kuramu on the beach of the River Hi than he did in Takamagahara, and Izanagi took notice of this. One night, Susanoo surprised his friend with a kiss. Izanagi noticed that too.
“Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know,” the Storm God said. “Just trying something.”
“Well, next time you try something like that, give me a warning, will you?”
“I will,” Susanoo chuckled. And then he tried a different approach. “Would you like to know why I chose the name Kuramu for you?”
“Why did you?”
Susanoo flushed and looked down, digging a hole in the sand with his heel. “Because I thought you were very pretty.”
“Oh,” Kuramu said. “I see.”
Since the days of old, it’s been said that love brings trouble to the heart. Because the Storm God was not good at expressing his feelings, Kuramu did not know that Susanoo had fallen helplessly in love with him centuries before.
“Why don’t you ever let me touch you?” Susanoo asked one night, as they lay on the beach stargazing.
“Because I don’t want to hurt you,” Kuramu said. “Everything I touch dies.”
“Nothing happened to me when I kissed you. And the wind dragons you rode were fine.”
“I don’t know how this works. I haven’t been keen to explore my ‘powers of darkness,’ ” Kuramu said.
“Can I kiss you again?”
“You want to?” Kuramu asked in surprise. Susanoo nodded.
Kuramu looked at the stars and smiled. “I suppose you can.”
Susanoo would have liked to do more than kiss him, but Kuramu was evasive and frustrating and wouldn’t allow him further. Finally, the Storm God became sullen from the tendrils of unrequited love. He moped around Takamagahara, making the rains pour and flood Amaterasu’s golden rice fields. She went straight to her father to demand justice.
Izanagi sent for his son and asked what was tormenting him. Susanoo, not knowing better, told the truth. He was in love with Kuramu, and he didn’t know if his feelings were reciprocated. Startled by this confession, Izanagi made the worst possible decision—he forbade Susanoo to see Kuramu anymore. Susanoo was outraged and threw a fit, so his father banned him indefinitely from returning to the human world.
Izanagi had expected his son to be angry, but what he had not anticipated was Kuramu’s reaction.
When his friend stopped coming to visit, Kuramu went to Takamagahara to search for him. Izanagi met him at the bridge to Heaven, carrying the same sword that had given birth to Kura-mitsuha.
“You can’t see him anymore,” Izanagi said. “Go back. You are not welcome here.”
Distressed and confused, Kuramu returned to Izumo. Worried about what he might have done wrong, he paced in agitated circles on the beach. At dusk, a group of fishermen passed by. When they saw him, they became terrified and started pelting him with rocks.
For the first time in his life, Kuramu did not run away. He hissed at them and commanded them to stop, but the humans were small-minded, fear-driven creatures. When they saw that the monster didn’t attack them, they grew confident in their aggression. They hurled hateful insults and demanded he leave the beach where they fished. When that didn’t work, they advanced with knives and sticks, aiming to kill him.
Kuramu didn’t intend to do it, but he lost control. He’d had enough of this, centuries upon centuries of abuse to which he never retaliated. This time, he killed every one of the fishermen in the blink of an eye. And he didn’t stop there. He went on to destroy all the fishermen’s villages in the area, because each one threatened the peace of his beach. He shredded the humans to pieces and adorned the nearby trees with their flesh and guts.
With blood on his hands, he returned to the bridge. Again Izanagi met him and ordered him to go back, but Kuramu stood firm and demanded to see Susanoo. He threatened that for every single day he wasn’t allowed passage into Takamagahara, he would kill a thousand men. A fight ensued between them. Brandishing Ame no Ohabari, the only god-slaying sword in existence, Izanagi lunged at the charcoal-skinned god. He wounded him but Kuramu did not retreat. His claws marked Izanagi’s cheek with three gashes, leaving a sign on his face for eternity, and in return, sealing his own fate.
Ultimately, he stood no chance against Izanagi. The God of Life and Creation drove the sword through Kuramu and would have cut his head off if Susanoo had not appeared and flung himself in between them.
All of Takamagahara froze as Susanoo and Izanagi glowered at each other.
“Father, what have you done?” Susanoo turned to hold the bleeding Kuramu in his arms.
“Move away from him, son. I should have killed him at birth. His evil existence contaminates the very plains of Heaven.”
“He’s never hurt anyone in his life!”
“You’re wrong. You are blinded by love and don’t see him for what he is.”
“And what is he?”
Izanagi thrust his sword at Kuramu again, but Susanoo and he vanished in an explosion of lightning. They landed on the beach by the River Hi. Kuramu’s dark blood seeped into the sand, slid toward the river, and began to take a shape of its own.
“Don’t leave me,” Susanoo sobbed, cradling the dying god in his arms. “My dazzling one.”
Kuramu opened his eyes, but the life was fading from them quickly. The wounds Izanagi had given him shimmered with gold, resembling tattoos of intricate symbols.
“I missed you,” Kuramu said. “I came to see you, but Izanagi wouldn’t let me. Did I do something wrong?” It was hard to stay awake. Perhaps it would be better to sleep for eternity than to suffer like this. “He’s always been cruel to me, and I never understood why. What did I do to make him hate me so much?”
Susanoo could only hold him, trying to remain strong while feeling he would shatter with desperation.
“I think I was in love with you,” Kuramu said, “but I was too afraid.”
“Shh, don’t worry. I am with you now.”
Kuramu used the last of his strength to grip Susanoo’s hand. “Don’t let me go. I was alone before I met you. I don’t want to die alone as well.”
“I will bring you back,” Susanoo swore, “even if I have to rip Heaven into pieces and toss it to the ground.”
“I will wait for you,” Kuramu said, holding on tightly. “Avenge our friendship.”
“No,” Susanoo said. His tears fell even as his yellow eyes blazed dangerously. “I will avenge our love.”
“Our love.” Kuramu smiled and closed his eyes. “Konran o maneku,” he said, and then he took his last breath.
His body turned to black liquid, slimy and thick, slithering to the water to give form to an eight-headed serpent manifesting at the river bottom. In Susanoo’s hand, one golden seed shimmered, beautiful and warm. The plum seed was the shape Kuramu’s happiness had taken, and it was filled with his love for the Storm God—the only piece of light and warmth he had known in his forlorn existence.
The plum orchard by the River Hi dropped all of its fruit that day, an offering to Kuramu’s memory.
Susanoo charged into his father’s hall, demanding that he bring Kuramu back from the dead.
“It can’t be done.”
“You walked into Yomi for Mother. It can.”
“No good comes from visiting the Land of the Dead,” Izanagi said.
“Then I’ll visit Mother and ask for her help.”
“Do you really think you will be successful where I was not? You have to carry the weight of a million souls to open the gates to Yomi. Would you darken yourself like that just to bring a filthy demon back?”
“He was never a filthy demon, Father. He was a golden-eyed god. You were blinded by your hatred toward Kagutsuchi and your rage for not being able to resurrect Mother.”
“You can’t bring the dead back!” Izanagi roared.
Susanoo stared down his father purposefully. “I will do everything in my power to resurrect him. Even if I have to kill every single god in Takamagahara to do it.”
“Then hear this, my wretched son. I curse you! You will suffer through three thousand years of loneliness and exile before you are able to gather the souls to enter Yomi. And if you are successful in bringing him back, he will be reborn only as a human, and he’ll live a human’s life in which he will love another. He will lose his love, just as you lost him.
“Only then will you give him the choice between life and death, and he will show you his true self. He can choose between living as god in Takamagahara, or dying as a man, sacrificing his immortality to his lost love. Just as you’re choosing to sacrifice yourself for him. If he chooses Takamagahara, he will be destroyed for eternity. If he surrenders his immortality, he will return to Yomi with you and live as a shinigami.”
“You are a savage god, Father. The loss of Mother has turned you bitter.”
“Would you truly sustain such hardship for his sake?”
“Many times over.”
Susanoo generated a storm like no other, and it destroyed the castles of the Heavenly Gods, flooded the lands, and shook the mountains. In anguish that her rice fields and shrines were being ruined, Amaterasu hid herself in a cave to mourn, taking the sun away with her. Thus, many humans died because of the gods’ grief. Eventually, Susanoo acquired his raven cloak of million souls. He entered the Land of the Dead and waited for the time to come when he could bring back Kuramu.
Before Hiro was born, Susanoo left Yomi only once, to slay the eight-headed serpent living in the River Hi and retrieve the sword that held Kuramu’s memories.