Susanoo, God of Storms
In the Land of Yomi, the plum tree split in half with a loud crack that shook the world of the dead to its core. The plum that had been growing for years fell to the floor and cracked like an egg. Eight dark serpents slithered out in a cloud of black smoke.
I was on Mount Kurama by then, sitting by an irori with my head in my hands and a frozen body by my side.
For three days, Ryū had waited for Hiro to come home. He wrapped himself in the kudzu vine blankets and stood in the cold by the path that went down the mountain. At the end of the first day, he walked back to the hut, built a fire, and ate soup made from roots and mushrooms.
On the second morning, he returned to the path and stayed there all day, forgetting to eat. His fingers and toes became frostbitten, and his lips were painfully cracked from the wind. The few kodama that were awake from hibernation grew restless and worried. They began to whisper among themselves that the boy was acting strange. Through the roots of the trees, they sent a message to Mount Kasuga to ask about Hirotsugu, and they received answer that he was going to marry someone else. What? How could Hiro do such a thing?
The spider ayakashi heard their alarm.
Ryū returned to the hut just before sunset at the end of the second day. On the sleeping mat he’d shared with his husband, he huddled in his blankets and fell asleep. He did not make a fire.
The third day was the day before their anniversary.
When twilight fell, the ayakashi came to Ryū. She found him lying in the snow with his head resting back against a tree, eyes toward the path. He was frozen but still alive.
“He’s not coming back,” she said.
“He is. He vowed,” Ryū rasped.
“Vows are easily broken. They are meaningless.”
“Mine isn’t. I vowed to be with him on our anniversary.”
“Boy, I have come to tell you to forget him. No Fujiwara can ever be trusted. He’s going to marry someone else. He has already forgotten you. Go inside and make a fire. You’ll freeze to death if you spend the night out here.”
“What does a spider ayakashi care for the life of a poor human boy?”
She hesitated. “Even a thumb-sized insect can hold a fingernail-sized soul.”
A lonely tear left a glistening trail down Ryū’s cheek before freezing on his chin. “He promised. I’ll wait a little more.”
The wind howled and pitched the snow from the branches. As the last of the daylight disappeared, the path became indistinguishable.
I came for his soul at the hour of the ox. He had frozen from the winter winds, still studying the path and waiting for Hiro.
I may not have placed an actual knife in Ryū’s hand, but I knew I was to blame. We were all to blame. Father for the curse, myself for pushing such a pure, sensitive soul in Kuramu’s direction, and the world itself for being so cruel.
From the moment that they met, I knew his relationship with Hiro would lead to Ryū’s death. I looked inside his heart and saw his future, saw that he would be the one to break Izanagi’s miserable curse. I considered him nothing beyond a means to an end. What was one last body sacrificed? Now I was overwhelmed with conflicting remorse and gratitude. I owed this boy everything.
I carried him into the hut, laid him on their bed, and cleaned the snow from his face and clothes. On his chest, I placed a pink nadeshiko that would always be in bloom.
Then I waited.
Not long after, the door crashed to the floor and Inari entered, fuming with anger and ready to attack.
“Stay back, kitsune.” I didn’t even lift my head to meet his eyes. “This does not concern you.”
I was so tired. I opened my right hand and gazed at Ryū’s soul. My singed fingers soiled his purity. Living in the Land of the Dead was slowly polluting my skin, for its darkness was a disease to a god yet living. I switched the glowing orb to my other hand, where the skin was still like the rest of my body.
“What have you done, shinigami?”
“Have you ever loved before, Inari? It is said that people with the same disease share sympathy. If you have not, then you won’t be able to understand me.”
“What are you going to do with that soul?”
“Take him with me to the Land of the Dead,” I said.
The fox god prowled closer. “I won’t allow you to,” he threatened.
“You? You won’t allow me?”
My hood had been covering my head and shadowing my face, but now I pulled it back to look directly at him.
He gasped and stepped back. “You’re Amaterasu’s divine brother. You disappeared three thousand years ago. Where have you been?”
“With Mother,” I said.
I felt the earthquake begin. It was happening.
Through the veil, I saw into Hiro’s prison cell. The seals were breaking. He was on his knees, tethered to the last thread that kept Kuramu asleep, wailing as his body went through a metamorphosis. The serpents from the plum had reached him. They raised their heads, shifted into an impregnable cord of smoke, and sprang into Hiro’s chest.
He released a thundering primordial roar, and the eight-headed snake awoke. His fingers formed claws, and his skin turned to charcoal gray. He burned with dark matter from within, and his eyes shimmered golden in the moonlight.
Kuramu was alive again. The fake mask of his humanity had fallen.
“You should leave, kitsune. It’s not safe for you here. He will come at any moment.”
“Hirotsugu. But he’s not your friend Hirotsugu anymore.”
Inari’s hackles went up and he snarled, “Then who is he?”
“Kura-mitsuha,” I said. “Kagutsuchi’s youngest son.”
The light of understanding dawned on Inari’s face. “What are you going to do?”
“Offer a trade. The soul of the boy for a million other human souls. Seems fair, doesn’t it? I took that trade myself once.”
“Hiro will not accept it,” he said with confidence.
I threw my head back and laughed. “Hiro does not exist.” Then I stopped and listened. “You need to go now.”
“I’m not running away from an ancient demon god.”
“But you should. If you die, who will bring the boy back as a yōkai?”
“He will not make the pact.”
I sighed. “He will. And when he does, if he asks you to help bring the boy a new life, I order you to comply.”
“I can. I am still part of the trinity that governs this world. I command you to comply and you will. Now leave!”
I struck him with lightning, propelling him through the air for ten ri, where he would not be in further danger.
I looked down once more at the poor boy caught in the impossible threads that made up the lives of the gods. I stood and covered his body with one of the kudzu blankets.
Kuramu would arrive soon. I raised my staff. I was ready for him.
He broke through the roof of the hut, his force driving a hole in the dirt floor.
He was unstable, his skin shifting between charcoal and white like patches of black lacquer on milky water. The human body could not contain him. It had fissured and darkened, and shadowy smoke escaped from within. His eyes were wild as they frantically searched for Ryū.
“Shinigami,” he sneered. It broke my heart, as it did every time he didn’t recognize me. But his memories were still locked away in Kusanagi. “You stand by his head. Do you have him?”
I opened my hand and showed him the boy’s soul. He made a grab for it, and I had to strike his hands with my staff.
“If you touch his soul in your volatile condition, you will disintegrate him.”
His long black hair floated around him. The walls shook with his power. “Give him to me!” He lashed at me with his claws, but he was weak and no match for me. I hit him again, driving him through the wall and into the nearest tree. The trunk broke and crashed down into the snow.
I picked up Ryū’s body and took him out of the hut. The roof caved in behind me.
“You want the soul, Hirotsugu?” I called.
“I do,” he growled. “He is mine.”
“Then you will have to retrieve him from the Land of the Dead by yourself.”
I placed the body on the snow in front of me and pulled away the blanket. Hiro paused, and a light flickered across his features at the sight of Ryū. It shined through to his heart, where he kept all of his beautiful memories of the boy.
“Why didn’t you wait for me?” he sobbed. “I promised I would come for you.”
After three thousand years, I couldn’t let this be what broke me. “I’m taking his soul,” I said. “You can get him back from Yomi.”
“You’ll deliver him to that filthy place? Ryū? Who has been as pure as snow his whole life, only his robes touched by the dirt?”
“That’s where the dead go.”
He glared at me. “How do I get there?”
“Just as the story says. With the weight of a million souls carried on your shoulders to open the gates.”
“That is impossible. Where would I get a million souls?”
“Fujiwara no Hirotsugu, descendant of Fujiwara no Kamatari, there is a skull in the basement of your grandfather’s sanctuary. Do you remember?”
“That is the skull of Soga no Iruka, the leader of the Soga clan, whose demise came at the hands of Kamatari. Upon his death, he cursed your family and their supporters. ‘A pox on all your houses will rise above my ashes,’ he uttered with his dying breath. Curses declared as last words are the most powerful, and your great-grandfather Kamatari, who had been born into the Nakatomi clan and taught about such things, knew that well. He ordered Iruka’s body to be burned, with the exception of the skull, which he kept. Go back to Heijo-kyo and burn the skull. Devastation will be brought upon the land, and you will have your million souls.”
“I must sacrifice so many to bring him back? Is there no other way? Why don’t you just give me his soul now?”
“If I did, everything would have been in vain,” I said. Damn this curse. So much that he could not yet understand.
The darkness within him was pulling away as he returned to his human form. His golden eyes turned brown, and the serpents inside fell asleep. He could safely touch Ryū’s body now.
I moved a few steps away and allowed the boy to hold his husband. He cradled him in his arms and wept. I felt the soul in my hand tremble with grief.
Eventually, Hiro kissed Ryū’s forehead and laid him down. “Wait for me, beloved. I will bring you back.”
“Remember. The Land of the Dead opens with a key the weight of a million souls. Come for him when your hands are red with blood. Only then will you have the beggar boy’s soul.”
Under the rubble of their hut, Hiro found the white robe with the embroidered kitsune that his husband had worn during their wedding, and he swathed him in it.
Pure heart in white silk, resting on sparkling snow.
Using only his hands, he dug a hole in the snow and then continued into the frozen ground until his fingernails were broken and his hands were bleeding. He lowered Ryū’s body into the grave, and then he lay beside him to cover him with kisses one last time. He arranged Ryū’s hands on his chest, his top wrist adorned with their marriage bracelet.
“In the times to come, they will tell our story,” he whispered. “They will find our love entwined under the Kurama Mountain. And then the universe will know how completely Fujiwara no Hirotsugu loved Takahashi Ryū, the beggar boy.”
He removed his own bracelet and placed it in Ryū’s hand. Then he stood up and began covering the body with dirt, tears continuing to fall as he worked.
I made the wind blow the nadeshiko out of the debris and onto Ryū’s chest before Hiro had buried him entirely.
To know the highest suffering was to hold the body of your beloved and be unable to find the drum of their heart. I knew how this felt.
I looked down at the kudzu blanket that was still in my hands. I brought it to my face, and the smell of them both almost drove me to burn it.
But it would make itself useful later. I dropped it at the foot of the throne.