The Bridge of Comings and Goings
Fujiwara no Hirotsugu died on November 24th, 740, beheaded by one of Emperor Shōmu’s generals.
Princess Abe had petitioned her father for a pardon, but Hirotsugu’s deeds were too severe to be forgiven. Nine years later, the princess became the forty-sixth monarch of Yamato and took the name of Kōken-tennō. She never married.
I was there at Hirotsugu’s death, prepared to reap his soul. He had sacrificed his immortality and thus broken the curse. But our journey was not over yet.
As I retrieved the soul from Hirotsugu’s headless body, it was coal black, tormented, and heavy. It weighed me down through the veil. I placed it on the throne and waited.
The skulls of the Fujiwara clan began to crack, all those evil men feeding the demon soul of a new shinigami that was being born from their vile energy. This had always been their purpose, nothing more than fodder for Kuramu’s new form.
He began to take shape—first his heart, then his body with the dark gray skin, then the face I loved so much, and then his black hair. But when Kuramu opened his eyes, they were no longer the gold of the immortal. They were red, like those of the demons in the Land of Yomi.
He awoke in confusion, gazing around my cavernous hall. But when he leaned on the throne, his hand pressed against the kudzu blanket and his confusion evaporated.
“You’ve brought me back?” he snarled. “Why?”
“We are not finished.”
“You have devoured my soul, shinigami. Ripped it apart piece by piece. What’s left?”
“I offer you another form of life. A shinigami’s life. You can choose any place in Ashihara-no-naka-tsu-kuni to be your domain.”
“If I live, how could I resist wanting to see him? Looking over his shoulder, preying on his emotions like a vulture?” He shook his head. “No. I choose eternal death. I won’t be able to stand seeing him fall in love with another. I cannot. It would feel like dying again and again.”
“Worse,” I said, forcing my voice through my constricted throat. “It would feel much worse than dying.”
“How would you know how this feels?” he spat.
I pressed my lips together and turned away. Would this torture never end?
“Shinigami… let me go where the dead souls go. To rest. Let me close my eyes forever. Let me reach that place where nothing else exists. I am tired. I want to say my ‘Sayōnara.’ I don’t want to haunt Ryū, but I fear I wouldn’t be able to help it. Let my everlasting death give happiness to the one I loved, so he can live again in our glen.”
“I cannot do that,” I said. I, too, was tired and sad, but all I had for him was love. All I’d ever had for him was love. “I still have something to ask of you.”
It crushed him. He closed his eyes and wept. His face crumbled in despair. “I defy you, shinigami,” he sobbed, “and all of your kind! What more do you want from me?”
The answer was spikes of venom in my mouth, knowing it would only cause him more pain. “My wish is…” But words failed me. I’d waited so long for this. I had worked for three thousand years for a chance to have him back, and now I must beg?
I would beg for another century, if that was what it took.
I fell onto my knees and extended my hand.
“Choose me,” I said. I held Kusanagi the Grass Slasher by the tip of its blade, presenting the hilt to Kuramu.
He looked down at me intensely with his new red eyes, and the moment lasted a lifetime.
“What is there to choose?” he asked, glaring at the sword. “I don’t know you.”
“But you do. Touch the sword and regain your memories. Remember who I was to you.”
“No,” he said. “No!”
He stepped backward in horror.
I lowered the sword, defeated. “Please,” I said. I could not do this anymore. I could not. “I have waited so long for this. I have sacrificed so much on this altar. Kuramu,” I raised my eyes to him. “I beg of you. Choose me. Take the sword. Get your memories back.”
Thunder and lightning grieved over Yomi. The demons grew silent below the mountain I had made my own. They waited.
“This can’t be,” Kuramu said.
“You have to choose. For your eternal death, jump off this cliff into the acid yellow waters of Yomi. Or sit on the throne and become a shinigami at my side.”
He shook his head, fingers on his temples.
“I have been by your side all your life. When you were mad, I caressed your face to drive the darkness away. You know who I am.”
He peered at the cavernous tunnels surrounding him, and then at the open veil that showed the human world. “No. This is…”
“Kuramu, look at me,” I said. He turned his focus toward me, searching his heart for the answer. “I will love you until the end of time, whatever choice you make.”
As we stared at each other, I saw in his eyes the moment he made the choice. He turned toward the veil and said, “Show me Mount Kurama in Kibune.”
It was over. I lowered my head and hugged the sword to my chest. His memories of me, locked away. I moved to stand, but he stepped in front of me and placed a hand on my arm. He knelt beside me and reached for Kusanagi.
“How long have I known you?” he asked.
“Since the beginning of time,” I answered. I held my breath as his fingers grasped the hilt.
I don’t know what I had expected. Explosions. The sky breaking, perhaps, or Yomi trembling and its jugged peaks crumbling to dust. But nothing like that happened.
Kusanagi’s hilt was made of bone, its blade of russet iron. At Kuramu’s touch, the sword took on an ethereal shine and then vanished in a puff of glowing dust that entered him through his chest. I saw his closed eyelids dance as millennia of ancient memories flooded his current ones.
His red eyes opened, and finally, they saw me.
“Susanoo,” Kuramu said. He grabbed my shoulders.
“I missed you,” I choked out. “My dazzling one.”
He leaned over me and I felt his lips on my forehead. “Thank you,” he said. “For keeping your promise and bringing me back. But the cost…” He turned to the veil, where Mount Kurama disappeared and the images of all the men who had died for his return flashed for an instant. Then the ones who had died for Ryū’s soul. “The cost was so great.”
“And we will carry that burden for the rest of our lives. But know this. I would have done it even for the weight of ten million more.”
“You still need to make a choice, my love,” I said, holding him in my arms at last. “What are you going to be?”
He pulled away from me and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He gazed at the veil again, where the mountain in Kibune had returned. He closed his demon eyes briefly, and then he stood and walked toward the throne. The eyes of the skulls shimmered with red as he sat down.
He spoke with the echo of the million voices upon his shoulders.
“I am the bridge of comings and goings and partings of ways. I am the step between knowing and not knowing, and the blowing wind that snaps the autumn’s grass and leaves. I choose to be the Shinigami of Kibune.”
Dear Reader, thank you for reading Shinigami.
Thank you very much for reading “Kokaji”.
If you enjoyed the story and you would like to support spread awareness, please consider leaving a review on Goodreads.
Susanoo and Kuramu’s love story, along with Kogitsune and Kokaji’s, will continue in the rest of the Takamagahara Monogatari series.
If you’ve read Kogitsune, you already know that Ryū is doing well. If not, check it out because Ryū is doing well. I hope you don’t consider these books tragedies. Death is just another passage in the Takamagahara Monogatari.
No one truly dies, they just change form.
I wanted you to believe that Shinigami was the story of Hiro and Ryū, when in fact theirs was just part of Susanoo and Kuramu’s story. It was a story about loss, despair, and doing everything in your power to get back the one you love. In the end, ‘All’s fair in love and war,’ right?
I like to combine reality, myth, and folklore to tell stories. Both the pox that killed a third of ancient Japan, and Hirotsugu’s rebellion, are actual historical events. The Fujiwara Four, as Umakai and his brothers were called, all died in 737 within months of each other. Hirotsugu started a rebellion against the Emperor and died by beheading in 740. The demise of the Soga clan at the hands of the Fujiwara clan was real. All of the poems in Shinigami are real poems captured in the Man’yōshū.
I hope you remain with the series until the end. Eventually, I promise that all the couples of the Takamagahara Monogatari will come together for their happy ever afters.
Stay in touch. You can follow me on:
Tik Tok: @xia_and_the3_muses
If you’d like to donate a dollar or two for editing or research materials, here’s where you can do it:
Till next time,