I think anyone who writes has a file of unfinished stories on their computer. Some start out as an amazing idea that dies in the light of day, others have legs but are pushed aside for other projects. If only we had the time and resources to write all the stories!
This is an excerpt from one of my unfinished (and unedited) but not forgotten projects. The photos in the collage below are from a museum in Aomori, Japan that houses floats from the Nebuta festival. I've never been to the festival itself but I'd love to go. I've been to the museum twice and also had the chance to wander around the seafront and peek inside to watch the construction process.
In the village of xxx, children disappear. Maybe it happens everywhere. Those in the village would hardly know since travel is normally forbidden to those outside the samurai class. And, when a traveller comes through the town to buy or sell or pass through, they know better than to discuss such things with an outsider.
Sakurako’s mother always told her to never to leave the village after dark but she didn’t understand. When Jun called to her, saying he wanted to go to the river to see the fireflies, she ran after him, eager to see their comforting glow. Her mother’s warnings were lost in the buzz of the summer night and heat.
If she went to the river, she’d be able to dangle her feet in the cool water. She’d been working hard to help her mother all day and felt worn out from the heat. She could wash off the sweat and the dust sticking to her skin. They’d return quickly and no one would even realise they’d gone.
She’d been to the river with Jun many times but always in the day time. He’d told her about the fireflies and how they glowed in the dark like tiny little stars with a hum that made your heart feel at peace. He’d promised Sakurako they could go and see them as soon as he could sneak away.
It was her last summer in the village and maybe she’d never get the chance to see them again.
Jun tore along the path in front of her, both of them in a hurry. Then Sakurako’s sandal had broken and she’d almost tripped over.
“Wait a minute,” she called but he laughed and kept running. They didn’t have time to waste.
Once the straw strap was secured, she raced along the path to catch him up but even when she got to the river, he couldn't be seen.
“Jun!” she called, knowing his tricks of hiding in the long grass or behind a rock and jumping out to scare her. “Jun, stop being stupid.”
She looked at the calm surface of the river and the rice fields beyond. All was silent and the last workers had left for the day. She removed her sandals and sat a rock, trailing her feet in the water. If he thought she was ignoring him, he’d show up. She didn't have enough time to play his stupid games.
As the sky darkened, the fireflies appeared. They were more beautiful than Sakurako had even imagined.
“Come here and look, Jun,” she called.
Sakurako tried to pick just one and trace it’s movements through the sky but she could never focus on it for long before it entangled in the others. They weaved and hummed and, for a moment, Sakurako felt like she’d gone to a magic place. A place far from the dirt and work of the village.
Then a mosquito bit her heels. She slapped it away and scooped up water to wash the blood from her leg. It was time to head back anyway.
“Jun?” she called, more hesitant now. He’d know it was time to go back too. Why would he hide for so long. “Jun?”
She’d have to go back without him. Maybe he’d run back already, playing another stupid trick.
“Jun?” she called one more time, then ran off back down the track.
As she neared the house, her mother caught her by the arm.
“Where have you been? Where have you been? Is Jun with you?”
“I went with Jun, but he ran off…”
Her mother looked alarmed and pulled her by the arm to Jun’s house. Jun lived in a house much nicer than hers. They had proper floors, not just straw. It was because they farmed their own lands, not that of the masters. They even got to eat some of the rice they grew themselves. But still half of what they farmed got taken in taxes.
Jun’s mother ran up to meet them.
“Is he with you?”
He’s disappeared,” her mother said quietly. “Maybe he’s just wandered off, maybe…”
Jun’s mother screamed and finally Sakurako felt fear. Jun’s mother was always quiet, always calm. She was known in the village for her dignity. Now she was screaming and burying her face in her hands.
Soon a crowd gathered round, the men organising themselves to search for him.
Sakurako tried to hide herself behind her mother; sure she’d get the blame for Jun’s stupid trick. They’d only been gone for a short while and she was sure Jun would show up.
When the men returned though, Jun wasn’t with them. Jun’s mother cried at them to search more, to go out again but it was pitch black and there was no way they’d be able to see him. They told her to have some sense and not make a fuss.
“We’ve never found them anyway,” said one man and he turned to leave.
Another shook his head. “Did you scatter salt in the doorway to keep the evil spirits away?” he asked. Everyone knew that was how you stopped the bad luck but salt was expensive. She’d never seen her parents do it.
Gradually the younger men left, knowing they’d have to be up early to work the next day. But the old men and the women stayed behind. Even though there was nothing they could do.
“Ahhh, I’ll never forget when I was young...” one old woman start. “I’d been made to go to the river to get water to wash the rice. I didn’t know then. And the slimy, green hand – webbed like a frog but much longer, it wrapped around my foot. It had huge black eyes and a mouth full of sharp teeth. I tried to run but it held on tight, dragging me along the muddy river bank.”
“So why didn’t it get you?” someone always asks.
“Because of the cucumbers,” she’d reply and slink back with a sly smile. “We always cut our names into cucumbers and threw them into the river. When the kappa realised that, he let me go. Or he’d have pulled me under and sucked out all my blood.”
Sakurako shivered and moved closer to her mother. Her mother had said the kappas were just stories but maybe they weren’t.
But another old man would call her a fool. “It’s not the kappas you have worry about,” he said. “It’s the ubume. I remember her from when I was young. She lived just over there and she was the most beautiful woman in the village. Hair like you’ve never seen. Then she married one of those Tanakas and they had three children. But one night, a night like this, one of the children rushed into the house and knocked over a lamp. Before she could do anything, the house caught on fire and all the children were burned.”
“She went crazy and she wanders still trying to find children to replace her poor little dead ones.”
Sakurako's mother laughed and said it was just a story but she noticed that her mother clutched on tighter to something in her pocket. And she knew, in that pocket was the charm she’d bought from the priest that offer protection for children.
Sakurako hid her yawn so her mother couldn’t see it. She didn’t want to go home to bed. Jun’s mother was weeping quietly now and an older woman made her some tea.
“He was a pretty boy,” one old man said quietly, “maybe they…”
Her mother hushed him but he glared at Sakurako. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen? There’s plenty around here who’d sell their own children. Maybe, it won’t be long and she’ll
be wishing it was her
that taken instead of him.”
Sakurako’s mother pulled her by the arm to take her home.
“The whorehouse merchant will be here soon enough,” the man said. “And I’ll be betting there’ll be one less child in the village.”
Sakurako already knew she’d be going with the merchant when he came but her mother had told it was to better life where she’d have money and riches.
“In a village this poor, you can’t grieve a lost child for long,” another of the old men said. “They’ll call a meeting but they won’t be searching any more. There’ll be drinking and talking and the priests will make even more money selling charms. And we’ll all be hoping this doesn’t mean the gods are angry and the rice crop will fail this year.”
“In a village this poor, there are many reasons why a child would disappear. The family can’t grieve for long so it’s back to farming and talk of kappas and ghosts and demons.”
Before they leave, one old lady, older than anyone can remember, murmurs, “it wasn’t like this before the Tokugawas came to power” but nobody listens to her.
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