Kura-mitsuha, the Dark Water Snake
In the rice-abounding Land in Between the Reed Plains, life was as fleeting as the morning dew. At the sanctuary in Heijo-kyo, where Hiro had spent his teenage years and listened to the cicada sing in summer, the guards were asleep. They had celebrated the New Year for three days and then fallen into a well-deserved slumber. Hirotsugu walked from Mount Kurama and arrived at the sanctuary before sunrise.
As he passed the deer living in the sanctuary’s forest, he remembered the times he, Yoshi, and Abe had chased them. By the lake, he remembered the ducks he used to hunt in autumn.
No one saw him walk into Fuhito’s hall. No one knew when he descended into the library. He took the chest containing the skull, brought it outside, and placed it in front of the dragon door. He picked one of the bronze lanterns hanging by the eaves and threw it into the hall. The fire spread from the upset candles and licked the wooden walls.
Hirotsugu opened the chest and poured oil onto the skull. Then he took down another candle and threw it over the red silk cushioning Soga no Iruka’s head. Dark smoke rose and the specter of Soga no Iruka emerged from his century-old prison.
“You have freed me,” the spirit said.
“You are a Fujiwara,” he said. “And yet, you returned me to myself.”
“I’m sorry for what my family has done to yours.”
“When the last of my bones turns to ash, a dreadful curse will flow through the Land of Yamato. You still have time to extinguish the fire.”
Hiro looked directly into the phantom’s white, shimmering eyes. “Wreak havoc with your curses, spirit, and let all whose ancestors have wronged you die a gruesome death.”
“And you among them.”
Hiro stepped aside and lifted his eyes, dull even in the flickering light. “I am already dead.”
Between 735 and 737, more than a third of the people living in the provinces governed by Emperor Shōmu died from smallpox. The disease first took hold in the western province of Saikaidō and the islands of Tsushima and Iki, and then it spread to the east, leaving death, famine, and devastation in its wake.
Heijo-kyo was affected to its core, as the disease did not discriminate based on rank.
The four leaders of the Fujiwara clan died in 737 after a long battle with the illness. In May, Fusasaki was the first to go, taking his first son, Torikai, with him. The next ones were Muchimaro and Maro, who both passed away in August, only twelve days apart. Umakai lasted nine more days until September, before dying in the Fujiwara sanctuary under the eyes of his heir, Hirotsugu, who had assumed leadership over the clan.
When Hirotsugu journeyed to the Land of the Dead, I showed him the way. He stood in front of the boulder that blocked the mountain pass to Yomi, waiting for permission to step through, but the boulder would not move.
“Why can’t I enter?” he asked me.
I placed his hand on the boulder and asked the question. The demon guarding the pass answered from the other side. “He does not yet carry a million souls.”
By this time, Hirotsugu had lost all will to stay alive. He was a dead man walking in a living body, impervious to the world and everything it represented.
“What do I do?”
“Go back,” I said. “And sacrifice more lives.”
“I’m unable to help you with this.”
“I can’t keep going.”
“Yet you must, if you want his soul.”
In the year 740, Hirotsugu sent a memorandum to the Emperor and declared a war on Buddhism. His letter described the corruption and general discontent at the capital and called Buddhism a catastrophe of Heaven and Earth. He stated that it was the reason the gods looked down on the kingdom with anger and sent a deadly disease to punish them. He demanded that all the Buddhist priests be dismissed and exiled from Yamato.
His cause was supported by the commoners who had been losing family members to the pox and suffering through a drought that led to famine and high mortality. He assembled fifteen thousand men and met the Emperor’s armies in Miyako. His armies were defeated, and four thousand men died on the battlefield. Hirotsugu was captured in the Gotō Islands as he attempted to escape by the sea.
He was one ri away from the pass to Yomi.
I went to see him in prison and asked if he needed my help to reach the Land of the Dead.
“What would I need to pay? I have no more currency. I’ve lost my soul, my name, and my will to live. What else can I offer you?”
“This one is free,” I said.
I opened the veil and held out my hand. He refused it and shoved past me as he stepped through the mist. On the other side, the narrow gates awaited, separating the worlds of the dead and the living.
The boulder opened to him this time, and the demon let him pass. As he came into the marshlands of Yomi, a mantle of black feathers appeared on his back, each holding the soul of a person dead because of Hiro’s actions.
He didn’t realize it, but here, his eyes were golden.
I led him to the tree. I opened my hand and Ryū’s soul awakened from its slumber. “Take it. It’s yours.”
He stared at the white fire surrounding the soul. “It looks like a kitsunebi,” he said.
“The god Inari will help you give him a new life. But Hirotsugu, know this. His life will be short. He’s been in the Land of the Dead for too long.”
“But I want him to live forever. To be immortal.”
“Then you must sacrifice your own immortality for him.”
“My own? But I’m not immortal.”
“You are,” I said, shifting my attention to the giant plum tree. “You are the vessel of an immortal god that died many years ago. He took life again—after three thousand years in the Land of the Dead—in the shape of this tree. Destroy it, and you will sacrifice your immortality for Takahashi Ryū. Then he will live until the end of time.”
The world held its breath, and I with it, waiting for Kuramu to make the decision that would seal all of our fates.
Hiro didn’t spare the tree a glance. “How do I do it?”
I handed him Ame no Ohabari, the god-slaying sword that I asked my brother to steal from our father less than a century ago. “Pierce it through.”
He looked at the sword. “Will I be dead after that?”
“No, you are still human. You will continue to live until the end of your days. But when you die, you’ll return to Yomi and this will become your home.”
He took the weapon and examined it. It was made of gold, with a sharp silver blade. The hilt was adorned with Magatama jewels made of ivory. When he swung the sword and pierced the trunk, the serpents inside him hissed and writhed in pain. He clutched his chest and dropped to the ground.
I took him in my arms and kissed his forehead.
“Not much longer, my dazzling one.”
I returned him to his prison.
Hirotsugu woke up in agony.
He called for Inari, who answered just as I had ordered. Biko was with him.
“You smell like death,” the fox god said.
“Kami-sama,” he whispered. He coughed and tried to sit up straight.
“You chose to die in shame, hated by all, with the weight of a million souls on your shoulders,” the kitsune said. “You disappoint me, Hirotsugu. You have crushed my faith in man. I trusted you to make the right choice.”
“What choice was there, Inari-sama? I would do it a thousand times more if it meant I could bring him back. To perish in shame in order for him to live—that is not death.”
Hiro opened his hand and revealed Ryū’s soul to the god. He dropped to his knees in supplication.
“Please, Kami-sama.” He raised his palm upward. “Bring him back. Allow him to live. Teach him the life of an immortal god. He will be able to heal and love again.” Hiro shuffled forward, grabbing the kitsune’s white coat with his free hand, holding himself up with his dwindling strength. “Please. He loved foxes,” he said through his scorching tears. “Let him live again among the yōkai. Let him be happy. Let him hear the song of the birds and make wreaths from the flowers of autumn. Inari-sama,” Hiro begged, “he loved to play with little foxes. Make him a little fox too.”
“Kami-sama,” Biko said softly. “I want to be the boy’s guardian when he wakes. I will guard his body on Mount Kurama. In the place where he was buried, I will raise a cedar to hold his soul until it is time for him to be reborn. It will have a hollow where mother foxes can come to raise the cubs Ryū loved. And when he is ready, he will take their shape and live among them.”
So it shall be. I blessed the new life of the boy I sacrificed in the name of love.