originally “published” as a submission to the Brooklyn Art Library’s Fiction Project
The theme of this year’s Fiction Project was “Tell the World A Story,” so I thought something with an international flavor would be appropriate. I’ve long been fascinated with Japanese culture, and have been studying the language for almost fifteen years (!?) now, so a Japanese tale was only natural. This one is a classically weird Japanese folk tale, full of witches, and priests, and mystic fruits. I’ve expanded and added to it, but I’ve tried to keep the story true to the original spirit.
the Horse Eating Witch
Many many years ago – long before Tokyo became the eastern capital – there lived a rich merchant with his beautiful young wife and his obedient young son. The son had been given the name Reiki, which means jeweled tree, because his father wanted him to grow up strong and rich, like the tree under which Buddha first began to know The Way.
But Reiki himself did not care to be strong or rich. What he wanted most of all, especially now, in the midst of lessons, was to go outside and play with the other boys.
“Reiki! Pay attention, boy.”
This was Kakyo-sensei, his tutor. Chichi-oya, father, had chosen this man over all the other applicants for his reputation as a strict teacher. Reiki often wished the man would fall desperately ill, but Kakyo-sensei seemed to be just as strict with his body as he was with his pupil.
“Hai,” Reiki answered. Yes.
“You say hai, but your eyes do not stray from the window.”
Reiki scowled. The neighborhood boys had organized a game of kickball in the street, and their giggling danced through the open window like bell tones. Some of them had on thick hanten jackets in bold checks and stripes. They ran back and forth like joyful birds, kicking the ball between them.
How unfair. Autumn looked so fun from this fortress window. And it was Makoto’s favorite season. No doubt his friend was enjoying his messenger duties this day.
“Re-i-ki. Eyes forward.”
Ugh. This was horrible. Unbearable.
Reiki turned his eyes toward the tutor just in time to see his father shove the door to one side and step into the room. That was close.
“O-hayou, Kakyo-sama. How are lessons proceeding this morning?”
To his credit, the tutor hesitated only an instant before replying. “They are going well, dono.”
“Good then, perhaps you can spare my son for a day. I have an errand I’d like him to run.”
Reiki’s heart skipped a beat. Chichi-oya was entrusting him with an errand?
Kakyo-sensei’s face registered his displeasure for a moment. But there was only one master in this house, and his requests were orders. “Of course, dono.”
“Come with me, Reiki.”
Reiki jumped to his feet and scrambled to catch up to his father, leaving his brush and books behind for the tutor to clean up. He fell into line at a respectable distance and tried to keep his excitement in check. It would not do to make a bad show of himself at this stage.
They reached chichi-oya’s office and he removed a folded piece of paper from his desk. “This must be delivered to the paper-maker’s in Nakamori Village , do you know the way?”
Reiki’s eyes grew large. “Hai!” It was a straight line over the western mountain to Nakamori Village. Makoto had been there many times on his messenger duties.
“Then retrieve a lunch from the kitchen and be on your way. There will be a reply. I expect to receive it from you at lunch tomorrow.”
“Hai!” Reiki bowed as calmly as he could manage and tried not to skip down the hall.
* * *
Reiki did skip, indeed all the way from chichi-oya’s office to the kitchen, where he collected a lunch from a chef almost as excited as he was.
“See,” Itamae-san said, “I said you only needed to be patient.”
Reiki didn’t know that today’s good fortune had much to do with patience, but there was nothing to be gained by arguing. Instead, he put on his most charming smile.
“Maybe Itamae-sama could put some extra rice in my bento, for celebration?”
Itamae-san couldn’t help his smile. “Well if you’re going to lay on the honorifics…”
He unwrapped the black lacquered bento box and reopened it, pushing aside rice and pickled vegetables to make room.
Reiki turned his smile up a notch. “Maybe it would be easier to just make a second one…”
The chef lifted only his eyes from the box.
“I can help,” Reiki said, his eye growing large in what he knew to be his most innocent look.
“That look doesn’t work on me, and you know it.”
Reiki’s face fell.
“Besides, your father would notice if a second meal’s worth of food went missing from his kitchen.”
Reiki’s eyebrow twitched. Chichi-oya was such a miser, he probably did count grains of rice in his spare time.
“And I’m sure Makoto-kun’s mother feeds him,” Itamae-san said gently.
Surprise registered on Reiki’s face – was he really so easy to read? – but it was swiftly replaced by dismay as he considered the sort meals Mako-chan and his o-kaa-san had to make due with.
Itamae-san smiled kindly. “How about this,” he said, pulling a bowl of rice over. “If we make everyone’s lunch just a little smaller, maybe no one will notice.” He scooped more and more rice into the bento box until its lid would barely go back on. “And perhaps you and Makoto-kun could find some berries along your way?”
Reiki nodded. Makoto knew all about which berries were good to eat. He used to go up there all the time to forage before his started his messenger business; he had told Reiki all about it one afternoon. He said he still went up there sometimes, when business was slow.
Itamae-san returned the now overstuffed bento to Reiki. “You’ve heard about the boy who’s missing?”
Reiki nodded. Only yesterday, Kakyo-sensei had listed it as among the myriad reasons Reiki was not to spend his lunch break outside. Reiki had briefly considered how nice it would be to go missing himself.
“You and Makoto-kun be careful.”
Reiki nodded and smiled, a genuine smile this time. “We will. Arigatou.” And he scurried off again.
* * *
Reiki closed the front gate behind him and turned west. No doubt chichi-oya was watching him from some second-story window, and it was best not to give him any reason to criticize.
Reiki was a full three blocks away when he took two sudden lefts and doubled back towards the east. The poor district in which Makoto lived was on the opposite side of town from Reiki’s house. He had better hurry.
Makoto’s house was actually two houses, well, two huts really, under a bridge on either side of one of Edo’s many canals. The first time Reiki had seen it had been quite by accident, and it was the only time Reiki had ever seen Makoto embarrassed about anything, but the truth was, Reiki liked Makoto’s house better than his own. Maybe it didn’t have even a single tatami mat, and maybe it did flood at least once a week during the rainy season, but Makoto and his o-kaa-san didn’t have that many possessions anyway. Occasional flooding sounded suspiciously like an adventure to Reiki. Plus, Makoto was allowed to come and go whenever he wanted, and his o-kaa-san always managed to scrounge up enough money for rice balls, no matter the season or time of day.
“Reiki my boy, it’s a bit early for you, isn’t it?”
That was Tomo-jii-san, the poor district’s unofficial mascot. Even he didn’t know how old he was, and if you let him, he’d talk your ears straight off your head with tales of his part in the Battle of Sekigahara, or how he fought beside Prince Genji, or that time he tried to woo Princess Kaguya. Reiki had once overheard him trying to convince a group of little kids that it had been his idea to lure Amaterasu from the cave with a dance, but even they hadn’t swallowed that one. He was an old man, but perhaps not as old as the gods.
“O-hayou, Tomo-jii-san. Have you seen Makoto around?”
“Well now, I haven’t seen him yet this morning. Say, have I ever told you how much you look like Genji-ouji-sama?”
“I think I’ve heard that,” Reiki lied. If Tomo-jii-san started on a tale of heroics performed with a prince a hundred years dead, Reiki would never make it off this street, nevermind out of the city. He waved his thanks and hurried off.
At Makoto’s bridge, he ducked his head into the hut on the northern bank, where his mother was folding clothes.
“O-hayou, Rei-chan,” she greeted him. “What are you doing here so early? Don’t tell me you skipped your lessons.”
Mako-chan’s mother was a delicate woman with a too-thin face, but she always had a smile ready.
Reiki smiled back. “O-hayou, o-kaa-san. I have to go over to Nakamori Village with one of my dad’s orders,” he said, as casually as he could manage, “so I wondered if Makoto wanted to come with me. If he’s not too busy today.”
“Your dad gave you an order? Good for you.”
Reiki’s chest puffed out like a peacock’s. “Arigatou.”
“I’m pretty sure Mako’s still in his room. Go ahead.”
Still puffed up, Reiki popped his head into Mako-chan’s hut to find his friend still in bed.
“Makoto, what are you doing? It’s almost noon.”
“Tch,” was the response. Makoto was face up on his futon, his arms and legs spread to the four winds. “Honestly,” he said. “Don’t these people have anything to say to each other? Why is everyone so quiet today?”
“Not everyone’s as chatty as you are, Mako–”
“Well, I happen have a message that needs delivering.”
Makoto lifted just his head.
“Chichi-oya gave me this month’s paper order, for the mill in Nakamori.”
“Are you serious?”
“Well if you’re not going to believe me, I’ll take my order elsewhere. You know, there are other delivery boys in this town.”
Makoto sprang into a sitting position. “I was just joking, shut up. Anyway, your dad’s such a stick in the mud, it’s a bit of a shock to the system, isn’t it.”
Reiki made a good effort at seeming insulted. “And to think, I had Itamae-san put extra rice in my bento just so I could share it with you.”
He turned to go, and made it as far as the doorframe when he caught Mako-chan’s messenger bag with the back of his head.
“You’re a horrible person,” Makoto said.
Reiki turned to find Mako-chan scowling at him, but it was only an instant before both boys broke into laughter.
“So you’re free,” Reiki said. “Are you coming?”
“I’m so free it’s pathetic,” Makoto answered. “Let’s go.”
The two of them said goodbye to Makoto’s mother and set off for the western mountains, the sun just reaching it’s zenith above them.
* * *
The forest was cooler even than the town, and Reiki found himself wishing he’d worn his heavier hanten. But the sun was high above them, and Makoto was beside him, pointing out weirdly shaped rocks and some of the more disgusting bugs. Under their feet, the pine needles crunched with that satisfying snap unique to autumn.
“Hora,” Makoto suddenly said, pointing to a sparrow. “That thing’s so big it could be a hawk!”
“Hai……” Reiki nodded cautiously. The creature seemed to be staring directly at them. Even Makoto seemed stunned. They hurried past the thing in an embarrassed silence.
But Makoto never did stay silent for long. “Are you cold?” he asked.
Makoto was giving him a critical look, and was already half out of his heavier hanten.
“I’m fine, Mako,” Reiki said. “Put your coat back on.”
Makoto shook his head. “Go head. I’m kind of warm anyway.”
Reiki knew that to be a lie, but he’d been through this enough times to also know how pointless it was to refuse Makoto’s generosity. He switched hanten with Makoto and tried not to appear too relieved to be wrapped in the cozy warmth Makoto’s heavier coat provided. For someone with hardly any possessions, he certainly was free with them.
“I don’t know why you’re so skinny anyway,” Mako-chan was saying. “Doesn’t that chef of yours feed you? If I had a chef, he’d be so busy making my meals, he’d never know what the rest of the house looked like.”
“Yes, Itamae-san feeds us. What about this bento?”
“That’s for a special trip. What does he feed you normally? Like, what did you have for breakfast this morning?”
Makoto was in full mothering mode now, there was nothing for it but to give a detailed account of his last ten meals. “Tamagoyaki, o-nigiri, and o-cha.” Omelette rolls, rice balls, and green tea.
“And how much of that did you actually eat?”
Sometimes it made Reiki’s stomach stand on end, how well Makoto knew all of his flaws. “What about you,” Reiki asked. “What did you have this morning?”
“A giant rice ball. O-kaa-san’s are the best, aren’t they?”
Reiki nodded. Itamae-san had once tried to duplicate the woman’s culinary feats, based on what Reiki felt was his own rather detailed description, but the chef’s efforts had fallen well short of the mark. There was something about the rice balls that came out of that little hut…
“You know what I’m going to have for breakfast every morning when I’m rich?” Mako asked. “Every morning?”
Reiki grimaced. “Mako. Have you every actually had roast peacock? It tastes like stringy, overdone pork.”
“Oh. Does it?”
“Plus one bite of it costs enough to buy an entire bed set. Just eat your futon and save yourself the trouble.”
Makoto laughed. “What about momiji-nabe, I’ve heard that’s delicious.”
Reiki almost laughed at that, the idea of a fancy chef slaving away over such a homely dish. “Yeah, it’s good. Itamae-san makes it sometimes when he’s lazy, or when he’s got some leftover vegetables or something. It’s definitely a winter food, though, what are you going to eat in the summer?”
Makoto of course proceeded to tell him all the many things he was going to eat when he was rich, complete with side dishes and occasional comments as to who was going to come for which parties.
Finally, towards the middle of the afternoon, their constant discussion of foodstuffs convinced them to sit down and have lunch. They found a little rocky outcropping that overlooked an enormous field of eggplants and devoured Itamae-san’s bento. Afterwards, they explored the field for a while – the plants were over their heads, it was the perfect place for a game of kakurenbo – and then Makoto found some dark red berries which turned out to be delicious – yamamomo he called them, “mountain peaches,” but Reiki thought they looked more like raspberries than peaches. They filled the bento box with them and ate them as they walked.
Eventually, the boys settled down and got back to the task at hand, and before they knew it, the shadows were lengthening and the forest was descending into twilight.
Reiki felt Makoto glancing over at him, but tried to ignore it. He knew they should have reached the summit hours ago. To be honest, they should have arrived in Nakamori by now, there was no point in saying it aloud.
Reiki picked up the pace. They were definitely headed west, the massive setting sun was directly in front of them, like a bonfire beyond the trees. Maybe they had gotten a bit turned around after lunch, but all they had to do now was keep walking and they would reach the other side soon enough.
But the sun soon disappeared behind the horizon and they were still walking uphill.
“We should stop, Reiki.” Mako-chan slowed and then halted.
“We have to keep going,” Reiki answered. “We’ll hit the summit soon.”
“We should have hit Nakamori by now, nevermind the summit.”
Reiki turned around. “You saw the sun,” he said, a little louder than he meant to. “We’re going in the right direction, we just have to keep walking. This isn’t Fuji-san. We have to hit the summit eventually.”
Makoto leaned his head to one side and sighed, which was Makoto-speak for, “I know you’re wrong, but I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” It was a look Reiki despised.
“So what am I supposed to do, go home?” Reiki shouted. “Sorry, chichi-oya, I got lost on the way to a village not half a day’s straight-line walk from my house?”
“It’s better than wandering around the forest in the middle of the night,” Makoto said, his voice getting loud, too. Then, an instant later. “No, of course I don’t want you to have to– Let’s just find a clearing or something. If we get started early tomorrow and run all the way, we can probably make it back for lunch.”
Running wasn’t Reiki’s strong suit, but failure was not an option, whether that failure was chickening out or being eaten by a bear. Mako-chan was right, wandering the forest at night was a bold choice at best.
He turned back and the boys started walking again, keeping their eyes out for any safe spots to hole up in for the night.
Not five minutes later, Reiki thought he’d found the perfect place. “Hora!” he said, pointing.
The path branched off in front of them, and just beyond a gentle curve in the left-hand path was a small hut, with an herb garden out front and firelight spilling from its single open window.
Makoto frowned. “I didn’t know anybody lived out here.”
Reiki shrugged. “Maybe that’s how they like it.” The idea of living alone on a mountainside sounded like a pretty good idea to him.
Without another word, Reiki started off for the hut, and after a moment’s hesitation, Makoto followed after him.
* * *
Aside from the herb garden, the front yard was just dirt, but Reiki could make out fresh hoof prints – whoever lived here was at least well off enough to own a horse.
A warm, meaty aroma reached Reiki’s nose as they approached. Mm, rice, and… something he couldn’t quite identify, like stew meat, but more pungent, and spicy. Whatever it was, it smelled great. Reiki strode right up to the door and knocked.
“Hai.” There was some shuffling inside, and after a time, the door slide open. A short, wrinkled old woman looked up at Reiki with a sour expression. Her kimono was brightly patterned, more appropriate to a young girl than an old woman, and the hems were fraying.
“Gomen kudasai,” he said.
“Ahhh,” the woman replied, her expression brightening. “Come in, come in. Douzo.”
“Shitsurei shimasu,” Reiki apologized again, stepping into the woman’s home. Her tatami floor was worn, but not ragged, and the single cushion placed in front of the fire pit was thin and uneven. The place reminded Reiki of Makoto’s house, except without O-kaa-san’s warmth.
“We seem to have gotten lost,” Reiki said, in his politest tones. “If it’s not too much trouble, we were hoping we could spend the night here.”
“Or in your stable,” Makoto said. “We’d be happy to do some work to pay you back.”
“Don’t be silly,” the old woman said. Her voice was stronger than her frame would have indicated. “You’re both welcome to stay here. Have a seat. What a bounty.”
Reiki and Makoto exchanged glances, but neither could think of a legitimate reason for their uneasiness, so they took off their shoes and stepped up into the single large room. The door slid shut behind them with a heavy click.
The old woman stepped around them and busied herself at her food stores, scooping some rice into a bowl and rinsing it. “You boys must be hungry. Let me make you some rice balls.”
“Oh yeah,” Makoto said, his eyes growing with anticipation. “We are famished.”
“We don’t want to trouble you,” Reiki said, hurriedly covering for Makoto’s rudeness.
“Nonsense,” the old lady said, shaking her head dismissively. “I was just starting to feel lonely again when you two came along. The gods must have brought you here.”
Reiki was at an age when he was beginning to question the need for gods, but he had enough manners to hold his tongue. Besides, he’d been in so many arguments with his tutor on the subject, he should be full for a lifetime.
She sprinkled something into the bowl of rice. “Would one of you dump the rest of that stew out for me, please. That pot’s getting a little heavy for this old woman.”
“Sure thing!” Makoto jumped up before Reiki could even open his mouth. At the woman’s direction, he threw the remains of the stew out the window and then brought it to her for later scrubbing. She put the spiced rice into a new pot, and had Makoto bring that back to the fire.
“What are you boys doing out here so late?” she asked.
Makoto glanced at Reiki. “We got a little lost,” Reiki answered. It was his fault they were out here, the least he could do was fess up about it.
“We’re on our way to Nakamori Village,” Makoto said, “but somehow we got turned around.”
The old woman nodded sagely. “That does happen, even to adults sometimes. These woods can be tricky at sunset.”
The pot boiled away, and the room began to fill with the warm scent of sweet rice. At last it was done, and the old woman scooped it back out into the bowl. Her knuckles were swollen and her fingers bent, but she formed the little triangles with a practiced motion.
“Let me help,” Makoto said. Without waiting for permission, he scooted over and dug his hands into the bowl.
“Oh my,” the old woman said. “Aren’t you a polite young man.”
Reiki felt his face color. He had never rolled a rice ball in his life. He couldn’t have helped out even if he had thought to do so.
“It’s okay,” Makoto was saying. “My mom and I make these all the time. I love doing this. Where’s your nori?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t got any…”
“Oh! Sorry,” Makoto said, embarrassed at having accidentally pointed out the woman’s apparently desperate poverty. “Anyway, rice balls are good plain. And these smell really delicious.”
“I have a special seasoning,” the woman confessed.
Makoto nodded. “We saw hour herb garden outside. It must be a lot of work to keep up by yourself.”
“I have some help every now and again,” the woman said.
Reiki shook his head. Count on Makoto to get a woman’s life story out of her in the first half hour. Makoto had tons of friends, all over town, and could strike up a conversation with anyone about anything. He was always cheerful and optimistic, even when he hadn’t eaten all day, and he never complained, even when his bedroom was in the canal, even when he’d slept all night on his mother’s lap in the street. Reiki complained when his futon hadn’t been turned in the morning.
Makoto and the old woman chatted happily about their families, Makoto’s mom, the old woman’s daughter and young nephew, her new grandchild. Makoto wanted to know everything about that, he loved babies.
The two of them made short work of the rice, and suddenly half a dozen rice balls were presented to Reiki on a well-oiled wooden tray. Each one was perfect little triangle, and one or two of them were still steaming. Mako-chan was already digging into his.
“Go ahead, young man,” the old woman said. “You’re far too skinny. Eat up.”
Reiki picked up one of them, sniffed it. The old woman smiled at him. He knew he was being rude, but something was pulling on his mind, trying to get his attention.
“You’re not going to have any, ma’am?” he asked. Makoto finished his first rice ball and moved on to his second.
“I just had dinner, young man, but it’s sweet of you to worry after an old lady.”
“These are incredible,” Makoto said. “What kind of spices do you use? I have got to tell O-kaa-san about these.”
The old woman smiled her toothless grin. “It’s just some salt and a few things I grow in the garden. Nothing at all special.”
Reiki wondered how she had eaten that stew with no teeth. There had definitely been chunks of meat in it. Come to think of it, where was the horse that had made all the prints in the front yard?
Well, it probably wasn’t unusual, if she really was that poor, but how did she afford two large cast iron pots, and why did this tray look so brand new? And hadn’t her cuffs been frayed when they came in? Suddenly, there wasn’t a stitch out of place on that kimono.
Before Reiki could open his mouth to ask, there was an odd cry from the other side of the fire. Reiki looked over to see a surprised horse sitting in Makoto’s place.
The horse blinked at him and brayed, but was shocked back into silence by the unexpected animal noise.
“Mako-chan?” Reiki whispered.
“Oh dear,” the old woman said.
Moving with a speed inappropriate for her age, she leapt for Reiki, pinning him to the floor before he could react. The rice ball he’d had in his hand went flying off and hit the wall with a juicy splat.
The witch grabbed another one from the tray with one hand, forcing Reiki’s mouth open with her other hand. “Open up, little boy,” she growled. “Didn’t granny say you were too skinny?”
The horse – Mako-chan!? – brayed again, this time quite loudly, and stumbled to his feet – his hooves?
Reiki struggled to shut his mouth, but the old woman was strong. His hands clutched at her wrists like a debtor appealing his sentence, and to similar effect.
Suddenly, the old woman let out a cry and her weight was lifted from Reiki’s chest. She went flying into the far wall. Mako-chan, horse Mako-chan, had kicked her, and he now trotted over Reiki’s prone figure to stand between Reiki and the witch. Horse-Mako let out another loud bray.
Reiki scrambled to his feet, but had no idea what to do. Makoto was a horse, the witch – for surely she was no ordinary old woman – was still unconscious against the wall, with Reiki’s lost rice ball sliding slowly down the planks next to her. The remaining rice balls lay motionless, still arranged on their tray.
The horse turned back to Reiki.
The horse seemed to nod.
“This is incredible…” Reiki breathed. This was absurd.
Makoto nodded at the back door. Escape while you can.
“But…” Was he supposed to just leave Makoto here? He had to find a way to change him back.
Makoto brayed again, and turned fully around to push Reiki towards the exit, but it was too late. The witch sprang back to her feet.
“You be a good boy,” she said. “Eat your dinner.”
Reiki had had enough of being called a good boy. He stood his ground in front of the woman’s fire pit. “You turned him into a horse!”
“Yes!” the witch answered, her smile nearly splitting her face in half. “Delicious creatures if you fry them up properly.”
An image of the stew she had asked Makoto to toss out the window rushed to the top of Reiki’s mind, and the horse prints out front, how scattered they’d been, like there had been a struggle. And the large knife he now noticed hanging from the wall near the rice stores. It was stained in places, and the handle was well-worn.
Reiki’s chest tightened until he couldn’t breathe, and his stomach churned until he was certain he would throw up right there. He thought of the boy who’d gone missing.
“You ate him,” Reiki said.
“And I’m going to eat you too,” the witch said, “if you’ll just sit still!” She leapt forward, skirting Makoto and lunging at Reiki.
This time, Reiki ducked and managed to roll out of the way. The witch reached out and caught his collar at the last second. Reiki was jerked back, and landed hard. The air was forced from his lungs, and he curled up, his head thundering and his lungs burning.
Makoto let out a fearsome yell and charged. He slammed into the witch with his full weight behind him, and the two of them slid into the far wall, where they collapsed in a heap.
Reiki forced himself to stand. His eyes fell on the witch’s large knife. It was on the other side of the room, but maybe…
Reiki looked over at Makoto and the witch to judge the distance, but the witch was no longer there. Just as Reiki realized this, Makoto shouted at him, and the witch’s hands closed around Reiki’s skull. Reiki’s vision clouded over, he felt his feet leave the tatami mats.
“Sit down,” the witch commanded.
Through the pressure and the thudding inside his skull, Reiki wondered how he was supposed to sit down, when he heard Makoto snort. The command was for him, he was trying to come to Reiki’s rescue, even now.
The witch let go of Reiki, and he dropped like a stone.
He heard the witch’s footsteps going and then coming back, and forced his eyes open enough to make out the witch’s dark form crouched down in front of him, a rice ball held menacingly above his head. “Eat it,” she ordered.
Reiki struggled into a sitting position. Makoto was resting on his hind legs against the far wall opposite the witch, his tail twitching furiously.
The front door was just in front of Reiki, but he had little chance of reaching it. Even if he had felt capable of getting to his feet, the witch was less than a step away.
“So what’s in these things?” Reiki asked.
Reiki stared the rice ball down. He wondered what it would feel like to be a horse, with four legs, and hooves, and a tail. Makoto seemed to have gotten ahold of himself pretty quickly, maybe it wasn’t so bad.
Makoto’s tail especially seemed full of energy. It was waving all over the place, up and down, forward and back again. Up, down, forward, and back.
Reiki narrowed his eyes. Makoto was telling him to stand up and run? He’d never make it.
Reiki pushed himself to his feet. His head was pounding, but he managed to stay upright.
On the edges of his vision, Reiki saw Makoto carefully getting to his feet – his hooves. Reiki turned to the witch and thrust out his hands to accept the rice ball. He had to keep the witch distracted.
But there was no point. The instant Makoto saw Reiki reach for the rice ball, he charged forward. The witch braced for impact, but Makoto wasn’t aiming for her. He pushed into Reiki with his head lowered, propelling the boy through the still-closed front door.
The next thing Reiki knew, he was laying in a pile of broken door planks and mud just outside the hut. He’d only narrowly avoided a massive rock that would have cracked his skull open. That hadn’t been there before, had it?
He pulled himself to his feet again, his thighs cramping, and his back already bruised.
The door had come clean off its fittings, and Makoto now stood in its place, stomping his hooves and braying a dare to the witch.
Mako swatted his tail. Get going.
The witch came at them both in a tempest of rage, with claws now extending from her fingers. Makoto backed up into Reiki, who tripped and started running. Makoto’s shouts echoed off the trees around him, the witch’s scream close behind.
But Reiki kept running, stumbling through the forest, branches whipping at his cheeks and arms and legs, tree roots reaching up to grab at his ankles. He kept running straight through until dawn. As the sun peeked above the horizon behind him, he realized he’d finally made it to the western face of the mountain.
His legs gave out, and he fell to the ground. His – Makoto’s – jacket was shredded, he was bleeding everywhere, and his last bite to eat had been at least twenty hours ago. The thought of food made him nauseous, but there was nothing left in his stomach to throw up. Unable even to sit up any longer, Reiki tipped over into the dirt and passed out.
* * *
Reiki leapt to his feet, Makoto’s name on his lips.
“Woah. Woah, there,” an old man’s voice said. A gentle hand touched Reiki’s shoulder, and he realized there was someone beside him. A priest, with deep blue robes and a walking stick on the ground beside him.
Reiki’s cheeks were caked in mud, and he could see the print he’d left, face down in the dirt. How long had he been here? The priest got to his feet to help Reiki sit down, but Reiki suddenly remembered what had happened. He collapsed.
“My boy, are you quite all right?”
“Mako-chan, my… I left him…” Reiki’s face drained of blood. What had he done? He didn’t deserve to be counted as Makoto’s friend anymore.
“Who’s Mako-chan? Where did you leave him?”
Reiki’s mind was running on five different tracks at once, and he was having trouble keeping up with himself. He had to go back, to help Mako-chan. But what good was he? That witch had nearly killed him, even after he’d decided to take a stand. And if he could somehow get Makoto away from that witch, so what? He had no idea how to change Makoto back into a human.
“Here, sit down.”
“My best friend, my… The hut… She was a witch, but I swear I didn’t know. How was I supposed to know? There were horse prints in the yard, but I mean…”
“Slow down,” the priest said. “What hut?”
“It’s on the other side of the mountain, we got lost.” The story tumbled from his mouth like a waterfall. The priest frowned through most of it, his eyes widening at Reiki’s narrow escape.
When Reiki had finished, the priest nodded. “Where is your home, my son?”
“Home…?” No no, he couldn’t go home. He had to… do what, exactly? That witch should have turned him into a chicken while she was stocking her cupboards.
The thought of the witch’s cupboards made him think of the rice balls, and then of the stew, and a wave of lightheadedness and nausea flooded his body. How long did it take to make horse stew? At what point did you cut up the horse? Maybe she was full from the previous stew, and she’d wait a few days before she… ate Makoto.
“How long?” Reiki asked.
“How long what?”
“How long have I been here, laying face down in the dirt?”
Reiki shouted. “What time is it?”
The priest laid both hands on Reiki’s shoulders. “It’s about mid-morning,” he said, his voice slow, measured. “I only came upon you perhaps an hour ago, I don’t know how long you’ve been here. What’s your name, son?”
“I have to go. Thank you for your help.”
Reiki tried to shake the priest’s hands off, but the priest kept his grip. “Your friend risked his life to make certain your escape. Do not waste this chance.”
“I have to help Mako-chan! I’m not running away any more.”
“I’m not suggesting you do,” the priest said. “I had not heard of any witch in this area, but I have heard another tale which may be of use to us now.”
“Another tale?” Come to think of it, where had this priest come from? What was he doing on this mountain?
“I have heard of a sacred fruit in these parts. An eggplant that grows seven fruits from a single stalk, each as dark as night. The stalk itself seems infused with mica, and the fruits glitter like the stars.”
Reiki frowned. Hadn’t they eaten lunch near a field of eggplants?
“I first heard of the legend many years ago,” the priest continued. “My temple was destroyed in a typhoon recently, and we had all been fasting and praying, when I had a vision of this mountain, and the field of eggplants. I confess, you were not in my vision, but if the field is as large as it seemed, I may require some aid in locating the fruit.”
“Yes, okay, let’s go, I’ll gladly help. Only, help me save my friend, please.”
The priest nodded. “I certainly will. There are seven fruits, after all, and only one of me.”
* * *
Reiki followed the priest back up the mountainside to the same small outcropping of rocks where he and Mako-chan had eaten lunch the previous day. The massive field of eggplants looked menacing now, like a dark labyrinth where any unimaginable horror might lurk under the next leaf, its fangs dripping something unnameable and sticky, and its breath smelling of the depths of hell.
“I know it looks large,” the priest said, misinterpreting Reiki’s suddenly pale countenance, “but between the two of us, I feel certain we can conquer it. Perhaps you can start here, I’ll start in the next row over, and we can move out in opposite directions?”
This field had to be thousands of tsubo wide. And they were looking for a single plant? This was impossible.
But what else was there to do?
Reiki nodded and set off for his patch of the field. He didn’t have time for doubts. Makoto didn’t have time.
* * *
Noon came and went, but Reiki wasn’t hungry. He hadn’t seen any eggplants dark as night and glittering like the stars. All the eggplants he had seen today – thousands of them, surely – were regular eggplants, three or four dark purple fruits jutting out from pastel green stalks.
Reiki wondered how the priest had gotten on. As the sun touched the horizon, Reiki had only been down and back once. He tried to think of a more efficient way to search, but he couldn’t risk overlooking even a single plant, when that single plant could save Makoto’s life – if it hadn’t been lost already.
The thought completed itself before Reiki could stop it. His eyes filled with tears, and he felt his face go red.
“Stop it!” he told himself. He couldn’t see through all these tears. And after all, Makoto hadn’t cried, and he’d been turned into a horse. “What a child I am,” Reiki muttered, “a selfish, useless child.”
The priest was calling him. Reiki rushed up the quarter field left between him and the overhang. The priest was already standing atop it, his hands cupped around his mouth as he called again.
Reiki scrambled the last few feet up to the overhang and arrived breathless. “Did you find it?”
“I did not,” the priest said. “I thought we should stop for the night and have something to eat. We aren’t likely to find the fruit in the dark.”
“But–” Reiki turned back to the fields and shut his mouth. The priest was right, the field was even darker than the sky.
The priest reached into his satchel and produced a furoshiki wrap full of rice balls. They were a bit stale, and Reiki made sure to wait until the priest had eaten his entire rice ball before he dared touch his, but the truth was, he was famished. He’d been running on adrenaline and fear since last night.
The priest started a small fire, and unrolled a tiny pillow from his satchel, which he plumped and handed to Reiki.
“Get some sleep, son, you must be exhausted.”
Reiki accepted the pillow and clutched it to his chest. His eyelids felt like shutters with no locks, ready to clack shut in the slightest breeze. His head felt like it was swimming in a vat of natto, sticky and warm.
“Why are you helping me?” he asked.
“Firstly, because I am a priest, and you needed help. Did not the great Tenzin Gyatso say, ‘If others are happy, we will be happy?'”
“Didn’t Buddha say… ‘Only when you reject all help will you become free.'”
The priest half-smiled. “Then why did you not reject my help.”
“I’m not Buddhist,” Reiki answered. That wasn’t exactly true, chichi-oya took him to temple as if the rising and setting of the sun depended upon it, but at the moment, Reiki was not inclined to believe any path to peace existed outside of this field of eggplants.
The priest laughed. “Perhaps we shall see to that, young man.”
“My name is Reiki.”
“Reiki, is it? I think your parents are Buddhists.”
Reiki looked away. His name was always such a giveaway.
“Go ahead and lay down, young Reiki. I give you my word, no harm shall come to you this night.”
* * *
Summers in this town really were miserable. When Reiki grew up, he vowed, he’d move north, where every breath didn’t come through a wet cloth, where you didn’t have to become nocturnal to ease the pain of August. He heard Hokkaido was nice this time of year…
The neighborhood boys didn’t seem to mind, though. They played outside no matter what the weather. Chichi-oya’s house was on the outskirts of Edo’s most affluent neighborhood, and there was a good mixture of upper and middle class boys, and even one or two from the poor districts. Reiki could always pick them out, even at this distance, with their thin frames and their plain clothes. Their messenger bags and bed hair.
That last was just the one boy, of course. He was the only blonde person Reiki had ever seen, and he seemed to know every person in town, rich, poor, and everything in between. Maybe it was that bag full of messages. It was so full, he must deliver to every home in the city. You’d think he was the only delivery boy in Edo.
Reiki thought it must be a wonderful job, to be a messenger boy. To visit every part of town, maybe even parts beyond. To carry people’s communications to each other, love letters, or business orders, or little notes from mother to son. And an important job, too. Without messengers the business of this town, the business of the government, would grind to a halt. In return for their vital services, messengers were allowed to go nearly anywhere, even into the Imperial palace.
Reiki himself had barely been outside his own home. He read about Edo, about Japan, every day from books and scrolls, but the only streets he had seen with his own eyes were the ones from his front door to the temple chichi-oya insisted on dragging him to every day. Itamae-san had described the markets in such great detail it made Reiki’s chest tight with his longing, but in reality he’d never so much as overheard one. And the closest he’d been to the palace was his mother’s woodblock prints.
And these textbooks! Chichi-oya had hired a new tutor, a famously strict tutor, who brought piles of textbooks with him, all of them filled with nothing by numbers and sums and theories of how to balance a warehouse ledger. And on top of it, this worthless tutor did nothing but scold him and–
Reiki caught himself. It wasn’t really the tutor’s fault. He was just doing the job chichi-oya had hired him to do. If we wanted to place blame, it was really chichi-oya’s fault for never listening, for never trusting him to do anything but sums and fake business plans.
But both of them seemed to be absent at the moment. Kakyo-sensei had excused himself to the bathroom ages ago, and who knew where chichi-oya spent his days. Reiki had never once been allowed to accompany his father on his daily business, to learn how things were actually done. Good grief, Reiki was nearly ten and a half years old, what was chichi-oya waiting for?
“Today,” Reiki thought, “This is the day.” He jumped up from his cushion, peeked his thin face out into the hallway, and scurried towards the front of the house. He slid his shoes out of the front hall closet and tiptoed towards the front door.
The short garden path from the front door to the front gate stretched out before him like one of Kakyo-sensei’s endless scrolls. Reiki took a deep breath. There was no covered path between the door and the gate, so best to take the direct route.
He walked quickly but confidently towards the gate. “A confident man can achieve much.” Perhaps the only useful thing he’d learned from that tutor.
He slid the gate door open, set his shoes on the dirt outside, and stepped into them. He slid the gate closed again behind him, his hands shaking, and suddenly there he was, outside.
Reiki laughed. He’d done it, he’d really done it. It had been almost too easy, but here he was, outside, alone, in the street!
He spun about, taking in the whole scene. No doubt Kakyo-sensei had already realized his absence and alerted authorities. Reiki would be dragged back for a sound thumping and extra lessons at any moment now, he was determined to make this trip worth the trouble.
First off, the street smelled wonderful! Horses and humans, spices and meat, dirt and trees, they all mingled together in his nose and threatened to overwhelm him.
And his nose wasn’t the only thing overwhelmed. He’d stretched his eyes as wide as a rice bowl and still they couldn’t take in everything. His ears fairly burned from the bustle of the street, and still he felt he couldn’t be hearing half of what was going on around him.
There! A woman in a pale kimono with pastel fish printed on it, and her male attendant in a dark blue kimono and a white obi to compliment his lady’s attire. The woman laughed at something he’d said and they smiled at each other.
And there, almost right in front of him! A brightly fringed palanquin, it’s curtain drawn. The two men who carried it wore short pants and sleeveless tan haori shirts with the logo of their company emblazoned across the back in a dark brown.
The group of boys he’d seen from the study window were off to his right, on the other side of the street. There were maybe half a dozen of them in a circle, kicking a brightly colored ball between them. Reiki felt suddenly shy, but he hadn’t come out here to gawk at passersby. He could do that from upstairs. He set his chin and marched across the street.
As he approached, one of the boys noticed him and stopped the ball with his foot. The rest of the boys turned to stare.
The first boy had on a light summer yukata hitched up in the back, but most of the other boys wore sleeveless haori and loincloths. They all had on canvas tabi socks with leather soles. Reiki still had on one of his nicer yukata, regular cotton tabi, and his wooden geta shoes.
“What?” the boy with the ball said.
The ball was made from scraps of kimono fabric, wound into a tight sphere and tied with thin cord.
“Uh…” Reiki started. “What is it that you’re doing?” Wait, that was too formal. “I mean, what are you playing?”
The boy gave Reiki a puzzled look. “We’re playing ball.”
Of course. That was a stupid question. One of the other boys snickered. “I mean, what kind of ball?”
“What do you mean, what kind? It’s a ball, you kick it around.”
“Haven’t you ever played ball before?” another boy asked.
“Of course he hasn’t,” the one who had snickered said. “Look how rich he is. Rich kids don’t play ball.”
“That’s not true,” said another. “I’m here.” He had a gentle, round face, and a deep voice. He seemed to be the oldest, although the boy with the ball was the obvious leader.
“Only when it suits you, Bocchan.”
“You’ve really never played ball before?”
Reiki felt his face go red. “Of course I have. Everyone plays ball.”
“All right, don’t get all emotional about it. Here.” The boy kicked the ball up to his hand and threw it hard in Reiki’s direction.
Reiki panicked and brought his hands up to protect himself. The ball glanced off his forearm and bounced into the street.
A few of the boys laughed, but the others just looked bored and disgusted. Reiki’s blush deepened.
“Fine!” he shouted. Chichi-oya had been right. There was nothing worth seeing out here. He was going home. He whirled around– right into the blonde messenger boy.
“Hey hey, careful,” the messenger boy said, reaching out to gently steady Reiki. The boy had the ball in his other hand, and he tossed it to the group’s leader. “That wasn’t very nice, Daisuke.”
Daisuke smiled. “I was just having some fun with him, come on. Who ever heard of somebody who’s never played ball?”
“Plus, look at those shoes,” the older boy said. “Even I didn’t show up in my geta.”
The messenger boy looked down at Reiki’s geta. Reiki felt his face go even hotter – how was that physically possible? His body was so taught, he was shaking.
“Don’t you have any leather-soled tabi?”
“I… no,” Reiki muttered. Get a grip! “No, all right!”
The messenger boy raised his eyebrows. “Okay, don’t shout at me. Just ask to your parents to get you some, they’re not expensive. Then next time you can play.”
“I don’t want to play with you people anyway!” Reiki side stepped the blonde boy and started back for the front gate. He could feel the other boys glaring at him as he crossed the street, and struggled to keep himself from running. He wouldn’t let them see him flee.
“Oi,” the messenger boy called out to him.
“Leave him be, Makoto,” Daisuke said. “He’s just a spoiled brat.”
“Shut up,” the messenger boy replied. His voice was closer that time. He was coming across the street after Reiki.
Reiki picked up his pace. He wasn’t ten steps from the front gate, all he had to do was get inside.
“Oi, wait up, will you.”
Reiki felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He spun around, slapping the hand away. If this boy thought he was going to add pity to humiliation, he had better think again. “Leave me alone!”
“I just wanted to apologize,” Makoto said. “Daisuke’s not a bad kid, he just likes to mess with people sometimes. Especially rich kids. I think he’s a little jealous, but the last time I suggested that, he really did beat me up, so…” He shrugged. “Anyway, if you really do want to play, have your mom buy you some leather tabi. And come out on a Sunday, I’m usually around, I’ll keep them in line for you.”
Reiki deflated. “I… I mean, thank you…”
“Nah, his bullying makes me sharp. Plus, if you really haven’t played ball before, that is no good. I mean, seriously, what do you do in there all day?”
At that exact moment, the front gate slid open to reveal Kakyo-sensei. Reiki could feel his anger even without turning around.
“He is supposed to be studying,” Kakyo-sensei said through clenched teeth. “Therefore I kindly request that you and your friends” – he said the word as if it meant sea urchin – “remove yourselves from this street. Young master Reiki has neglected his studies on your account long enough. I shall not stand for it any longer.”
Even Makoto seemed afraid. “Yes sir.”
Kakyo-sensei grabbed Reiki by the collar and snatched him back inside, slamming the gate shut in Makoto’s face.
* * *
Reiki became aware of the damp ground under his back, of the birds twittering from nearby trees, of a growing light beyond his eyelids. He clenched his eyes shut, desperate to ignore it all. His dream memories were so much more pleasant. Like that one evening, early October, wasn’t it? Maybe two months after he’d first met Makoto. He’d been hiding out in the old study after dinner, watching people go to and fro down the emptying street. Chichi-oya and haha-oya lingered at the dinner table, as they always did, but Reiki excused himself. He was usually safe for an hour or so by himself that way.
That night was a chilly one, but Reiki didn’t feel the cold. Kakyo-sensei had left for a few days vacation. Reiki studied the grounds, unable to quite smother the hope that had sparked to life in his chest when he’d heard of his tutor’s travel plans. Perhaps he could break out again.
It was then that he had spied the messenger boy, Makoto, walking slowly past the house. He didn’t have his bag of letters tonight, and he stopped directly across the street from Reiki’s window.
Without thinking, Reiki raised his arm to wave. He quickly put it back down, checking behind him for intruders, but there was no one.
Across the street, Makoto waved back.
Don’t do that, Reiki thought. If anyone in the house spotted him they’d both be found out.
Makoto motioned for him to come down. Reiki crossed both arms over his chest and shook his head. Impossible.
Makoto’s expression fell. Reiki realized he didn’t have any way of explaining. Makoto would just think he was refusing.
Well, that wouldn’t do. Reiki pointed to the other end of the house. Meet me out back.
After making sure that Makoto was headed in the right direction, Reiki turned and dashed down the hall, exiting via the back door. His mother’s garden was back here, and although there was no back exit from the property, at least he and Makoto could talk to each other with only minimal risk of being discovered. If anyone found him out there, Reiki could say he was just enjoying the garden.
“Makoto? Makoto, are you there?”
“Yeah, hey! Why didn’t you ever come back out? I told you I’d keep those guys off you.”
“I can’t,” Reiki said. “My dad won’t let me outside. He thinks the outside world is… I don’t know, dirty. Full of immoral people and things that will taint your soul. Never stopped him from making money off them, I guess.”
“It kind of is dirty,” Makoto said, “that’s what’s so great about it.”
Makoto laughed, a pleasant, light sound. “Nevermind. You really can’t get out at all?”
“My dad takes me to temple every morning, that’s about it. Maybe my mom would let me out, if it were up to her, but chichi-oya’s the final word on everything around here.”
Makoto was silent.
“Makoto? Are you still there?”
“What about this?” Makoto asked, thoughtful. “Your dad uses Ken’ichi, right? For a messenger?”
“Yeah, I see Ken’ichi around all the time. So what about this. I’ll write you a letter, and give it to Ken’ichi, and then he can give it to you. You guys must see each other around, right?”
“Yeah, yeah. He eats lunch with us sometimes. And he’s always bringing books and stuff for my tutors.”
“All right! We can exchange letters then.” Makoto sounded just as excited as Reiki felt. “And keep after your mom about coming out to play. Sunday afternoons, we have a big kickball game at the other end of Kane-doori. You know that house that burnt down like two years ago?”
“Oh. Okay. Well, if you turn left out of your front gate and just keep walking, you’ll see us.”
“Reiki!” Ah, shimatta, haha-oya was calling him.
“I have to go, Makoto. Send me a letter, okay?”
“I will. You send me one back.”
“Good morning. Son, wake up. It’s time to get going.”
It was the priest, looming over him like an ogre.
Reiki sat up, blinking and trying to clear his mind. Makoto’s first letter had come the very next week. They traded letters so much, Makoto told so many great stories about the outside world, that Reiki had finally shored up his courage and approached his mother about letting him go outside.
“Did you sleep well, young man?”
“My name’s Reiki.”
His mother had refused at first, of course, but Reiki wore her down, asking and begging, and casually – and not so casually – dropping hints into every conversation he had with her. Eventually she had relented, but only once a month, on the first Monday of each month, when chichi-oya was away at a business meeting. Reiki had written to tell Makoto the good news that very night, and they began meeting regularly.
“You didn’t seem to like your name yesterday.”
Reiki looked away. “It’s not so bad. Rei-chan’s okay.”
“Rei-chan?” The priest repeated. “Is that what your mother calls you?”
Reiki scowled. “No.” In fact, the string of meetings he’d arranged with his mother to procure permission to leave the grounds was the highest concentration of face-to-face conversations they’d ever had. The only ones who called Reiki by such pet names were Makoto and his mother.
The priest had a gentle smile on his face. “Shall we begin another day of searching, then?”
Reiki wiped the scowl from his face and got to his feet. “I’m ready.”
The priest nodded. He reached into his bag and retrieved a small loaf of bread, which he tore in half. “Here, you’ll need your strength.”
Reiki accepted the loaf and sniffed it. It was hard and stale, and it smelled like the burlap of the priest’s sack. “Did you bring all this food with you?” he asked.
The priest chuckled, embarrassed. “Truth be told, this is the last of it. I was rather hoping I’d find the field sooner than I did.” He looked out over the purple sea before them and then back to Reiki, a wry smile on his lips. “I suppose we’ll be eating eggplants from here on out.”
* * *
Reiki put all other thoughts from his mind and waded back into the field, inspecting each plant. Knowing there was no lunch, he kept right on going as the sun reached its peak above him and began its steady decline.
About mid-afternoon, he developed a headache he was so hungry, and so he tried an eggplant raw. After only a few bites, however, he tossed the fruit to the ground. He’d never been a particular fan of eggplants, but they were absolutely disgusting uncooked.
His stomach, however, didn’t care what his tongue thought of them, and it growled for more. Reiki ignored it as long as he could, but he knew he would eventually fall over if he didn’t eat something. He decided to have one bite every ten plants, and his tongue would just have to deal with it. Asking the priest for more water would mean a pause in the search, and possibly a lengthy one. Who knew how long it would take to find the man in this field.
As the sun set on the second day and it became difficult for him to see the plants clearly, Reiki reluctantly made his way back to the overlook. The priest was already there, roasting a couple of eggplants over a small fire, with more piled next to him.
“Good timing,” the priest greeted him. “These are just about done.”
He pulled the fruits from the fire and cracked the roasting stick in half. “Careful, it’s hot,” he said, offering one to Reiki.
Reiki’s stomach was dancing in his torso, desperate for sustenance, but his mouth had put up with eggplant all day, and now dried up in protest.
“If you’re careful about peeling the skin off, we can collect dew water with it in the morning.”
Reiki sighed. There was nothing for it. He needed to keep his strength up if he was to be any use to Makoto, and the only thing left were these eggplants. He carefully tore the sky-dark fruit near the top and peeled it back like a grape skin. Chunks of the flesh came off with it, but the skin remained intact, in wide, roughly bowled halves.
The priest was impressed. “Ne, you’re pretty good at that.”
The priest handed him the second fruit to peel and put two more on the fire. There were still three eggplants in the pile next to the priest. Reiki frowned. That was really more eggplants than Reiki imagined he cared to eat, even roasted.
He went to work on the second skin, marveling despite himself at how shiny the skin was. The stars in the cloudless sky reflected on its darkened surface until it looked like Reiki was holding a shard of the heavens in his palm.
He glanced out at the field. Little eggplant-sized blobs of glittering sky shone out among almost luminescent stems. Reiki’s heart sank. If this was how normal eggplants looked after dark, there was no way they could search at night. Over half of every passing day, wasted!
“Are you sure it’s here?” Reiki asked.
“I’m sure,” the priest answered. “I don’t know of any other large eggplant fields in the area, do you?”
Reiki had to admit that he did not. “How do you know it’ll work? And how are we supposed to get her to eat it? Surely she knows it’ll hurt her.”
“We could slip it into her cooking pot when she’s not looking.”
“The only thing she’s going to be cooking is my friend!”
“Then we’ll find some other way,” the priest assured him. “Anyhow, haven’t you rather put your peasantry ahead of your lords? We haven’t even found it yet.”
Reiki finished peeling the second fruit in silence and handed it back to the priest. If he tilted his head just so, he felt like he could see the stars moving, swirling in endless spirals on the dark fruits.
“Thank you. I’ll have another couple for you in a moment. In the meantime, you should get started eating. You really are far too skinny, you know.”
The priest passed eggplants three and four to Reiki and moved five and six onto the fire. Only the seventh remained beside him, still attached to a single length of pale, sparkling stalk that snaked around behind the priest’s body. The numbers finally connected in Reiki’s brain, and his mind went blank.
“No, thank you,” Reiki heard himself say. “I think I’m going to bed.”
Something not quite readable flashed across the priest’s face. “Are you sure? They’re really quite good roasted.”
“Yes. I’ll just set these over there.” He had to be sure. He had to get a closer look at that stalk.
Reiki stood up and delivered the two twinkling fruits to the other side of the fire, setting them down just to the priest’s left. The stalk that had bore these seven eggplant fruits glittered as if it were infused with mica.
He raised his eyes from the stalk to find the priest’s stern gaze bearing down on him.
“You’re a clever boy,” the priest said. “Too clever by half, I think.”
Reiki stood frozen, his hands still on the unpeeled fruits. He’d met this priest the very next morning. The witch had been out here with him the whole time? So, she hadn’t stopped to make a stew before she’d set off after him?
The priest laughed, his voice modulating up with each exhalation, until a high-pitched cackle flew over the fire pit and the now burnt eggplants. Would they still work, charred? But it obviously didn’t hurt her to touch them, were they really harmful to her at all?
When Reiki turned his eyes back to the priest, the man had dropped the disguise. The old woman from the forest hut stood before him, with that same brightly colored kimono and that slightly gaunt frame.
“You should have eaten your dinner when you had the chance, boy.”
Reiki fled. Without thinking, he snatched up the pale stalk with its single remaining fruit, and leapt off the outcropping. He landed hard and rolled forward.
Cradling the eggplant, Reiki snapped to his feet. His legs started running almost of their own accord, taking him into the deepest part of the field.
The dark plants and thick leaves made it impossible to see, and he soon lost sight of the outcropping and its fire. He was adrift in a sea of stars and mica without a single landmark. The noise of rustling plants overwhelmed his ears. He had no idea where he was, and not a clue where the witch might be.
Realizing that his noisy escape was giving his position away, Reiki skidded to a stop and ducked to the ground.
Slowly, carefully, he turned around. There was nothing. Every one of these plants shone like the midnight sky, but somehow without giving off any light. Would any of these fruits do? Perhaps it only worked at night? How much of what she had told him was true?
“Are you just going to hide?” the witch called out. It sounded like she was still on the outcropping, but he didn’t dare stand up to find out. “Is that what you always do, run away? Why don’t you join me for dinner tomorrow? You know it takes three days for a boy to turn completely into a horse. And he was so spirited, I’m sure he’ll be a treat.”
Reiki swallowed a gasp before it could leave his throat. But then her words reached his brain. Makoto wasn’t fully a horse yet? This was his chance. If he could make it back to the hut while the witch thought he was still here in the field, he could free Makoto, search her hut for something to cure him, and maybe even escape.
“I could just leave you here,” the witch continued. “You’ll be easy pickings when you’re unconscious.”
She cackled again, but Reiki ignored her. He stood back up, and tiptoed between the plants in what he hoped was an easterly direction. He needed to make a wide circle around her, or he’d be seen instantly.
Then the field behind him exploded in a ball of fire.
The shock wave pushed him on his side, and the stench of a lightning strike layered on burning eggplant filled his throat. A cough slipped from between his lips before he could prevent it.
“Ha!” The witch’s triumphant shout reached his ears over the crackle of flames.
Reiki gave up on silence and simply ran. The edge of the field surprised him, and suddenly he was exposed between the now burning field and the dark interior of the mountain forest.
He didn’t stop, but pushed his legs harder and harder. He burst into the forest and kept right on going. Another explosion toppled an oak behind him and the witch let out a joyous howl.
“That’s right, little boy, run away! You’re friend is going to be delicious.”
Reiki took a sudden right and nearly ran headlong into a tree. He turned aside at the last instant and twisted around to take shelter behind the tree’s massive trunk, still clutching the last eggplant to his chest.
Forcing his breath to come slowly, quietly, Reiki listened for any sign of his pursuer. The fire turned the trees into dancing, twisting shadows on each other, and smoke began to wind its way into the forest. A few of the smaller and smarter animals made for safe havens farther in.
“Come out, come out,” the witch called. “You know I’ll catch you eventually. You’ll have to sleep, or sniffle, or twitch. Go ahead and yawn, I’ll hear you.”
Reiki closed his mouth. He had to get her away from him, somehow lead her astray, or he’d be pinned down here. He transferred the eggplant to his left hand and picked up a stone from the forest floor.
The witch’s footsteps were coming from his left, so he leaned to his right and tossed the pebble back towards the field.
The witch all but flew to the area in which the pebble had landed. Reiki ducked back behind the tree trunk, and picked up another pebble. This one he threw as hard as he could directly to his left.
The instant he heard the witch start moving, he leapt around the trunk in the other direction. She wouldn’t be able to hear him over her own footsteps, he hoped.
When the witch arrived at the second pebble’s landing place, she growled in frustration. Reiki allowed himself a grin, but only a short one. He had only one or two more pebbles to throw before she would be able to triangulate his location. If only Kakyo-sensei knew what his math lessons were being used for…
Reiki tied the eggplant stalk around his left arm, just in case, and picked up as many larger stones as he could fit in his free hand. He threw them in quick succession to his right, timing them like running footsteps.
The witch started towards them, and Reiki took off in the opposite direction. He dashed out into the flickering forest, eggplant clutched in one hand, stalk curling up his arm. He didn’t dare look behind him, but after two dozen safe steps, he figured he must have escaped. Now, he had only to make it back to the hut.
With no way of knowing when the witch’s magic had taken over and trapped them in the forest that afternoon, he had no idea how long the journey would take him, but Makoto was waiting for him. He ran as fast as he could.
* * *
The path to the witch’s hut was suspiciously easy to find. Reiki approached it with extreme caution, tiptoeing down the ribbon of dirt. The hut was locked down, with window shuttered and the new front door bolted. Reiki wondered from which direction the witch would come for him, but the front of the hut was completely still.
He slid around back, where he was greeting by a single shivering horse.
The horse’s eyes focused on him, and it brayed. Reiki rushed over to give him a hug. The night was chilly, but Makoto was dripping in sweat and shaking.
“Makoto, what’s wrong with you? I mean… You know what I mean.”
Reiki shook his head. Stop asking dumb questions.
“Stay here.” There had to be a way to change him back. Reiki turned for the hut’s back door, but Makoto tried put his muzzle – face! – in Reiki’s hand.
“Makoto…” Reiki understood the impulse not to be left alone, but the witch’s hut wasn’t so big as to accommodate them both.
But Makoto wasn’t interested in joining him in the hut. Makoto was eating the eggplant. “Makoto, stop!”
It was too late. The eggplant was gone. The stalk immediately started drying up, crumbling from his arm in a matter of seconds.
Reiki’s heart sank into his stomach. The other six fruits lay roasted and peeled back at the outcropping. “How are we supposed to… Makoto?”
Makoto was shimmering, and his shape was changing, like his skin was made of gelatin.
“Makoto!” Reiki took an unconscious step towards his friend, desperate to do something to help – was this why the witch had wanted the eggplants? Did they complete the transformation? And he had brought it here himself.
But when he reached out to grab Makoto round the neck, he only clutched at empty space.
In the horse’s place was a stocky young boy with wild blonde hair and not a stitch of clothing.
“Neigh?” Makoto said. He shook his head and tried again. “Reiki?”
Reiki dropped to his knees, his eyes already filling with tears. “Thank you,” he said, not quite sure, not quite caring, who it was he was thanking. He wrapped both arms around his friend and hugged him tight.
Makoto laughed and hugged him back. “I knew you’d be back! And just in the nick of time, too. I was starting to think in horse.”
Reiki felt his smile grow. “Come on, we have get out of here.”
“How touching,” said a crackly voice from behind him. Makoto’s eyes shifted focus and then grew large. “But let me assure you that you will not be getting out of here.”
Reiki’s face flushed with anger. He stood up, his fists clenched, and he turned to face the witch.
“I will not allow you to change my friend again.”
“Who said anything about changing you?”
She lifted a hand and fired of bolt of lightning at Reiki. He steeled himself. There wasn’t time to move.
But he felt a hand on his back, and then he was in the dirt, with dust on his tongue and burning scrapes on his palms.
Above him, Makoto had taken the full force of the lightning bolt. He cried out and fell to the ground, drained of strength.
Reiki went from prone to standing without passing through any intermediary stages, and launched himself at the witch.
She lifted the other arm to point another lightning bolt at him, but he dove to one side. The bolt hit just to his left.
He rolled back onto his feet just as Makoto streaked past him, hair streaming out behind him and a fierce yell passing in his wake. Makoto hit the witch full force and they both tumbled to the ground.
Almost the instant they touched the earth, Makoto’s shout cut off and he went still. The witch had shocked him into paralysis again.
She untangled herself from him and stepped back. Reiki reached her just at that moment, and she went down again, but she used their momentum to fling her arms up, and Reiki lost his grip. He went flying into the air, and landed hard a few feet away.
The witch got back to her feet, as did Makoto, now recovered, but neither made any moves. Makoto and the witch eyed each other warily.
Reiki got to his feet as well. The witch was now sandwiched between the two of them, but they were only children, and she had those lightning bolts. Reiki cast about for something to throw at her, but there was nothing. The only loose things to hand were twigs and pebbles. He was going to have to go without.
“Makoto, her arms!” Reiki called out, starting for the witch.
Makoto dutifully sprang forward, grabbing the witch by the wrists. She pulled him bodily from the ground, but Reiki knocked into her and all three of them went down. Makoto took the full effect of another lightning bolt, and rolled to one side, clenched into a tight ball.
Reiki felt only a slight tingle, and launched his fist into the side of the witch’s head. The first blow only surprised her, but the second landed squarely in the middle of her face. Reiki heard a sickening crunch, and was guilty and delighted to realize he’d broken her nose.
She let out a burst of electricity, which Reiki felt full force. He fell to the ground. His body wasn’t responding to his commands. It was as if the connection between his mind and his muscles had been severed.
He landed on his side with a thunk that made him think his arm must be broken but apparently his ability to feel pain had been cut off as well.
He saw the witch stumble backwards, clutching her nose and shooting out bursts of lightning at random as she backed away from them.
Suddenly there was another source of light, from the hut, the back door. Reiki couldn’t move to see what was going on, but it must have been Makoto. What was he doing?
Then Makoto was at his side, helping him to sit up. Reiki started to regain communications with his muscles, and his shoulder was sending all kinds of signals. His vision blurred as his mind attempted to deal with the pain he was suddenly in.
“Reiki, are you okay?”
Reiki clutched his shoulder and opened his mouth to reply, but Makoto screamed and fell to the ground. He wasn’t paralyzed, though, he was on fire. He writhed in the dirt, trying to put the flames out. The witch stalked towards them, still clutching her nose, with her other hand out in front of her, her palm still smoking.
“You boys have been far too much trouble,” she said. “If only you’d eaten your rice balls like good mannered guests, I could be preparing a feast right now.”
The flames on Makoto’s back were out, but his flesh was bubbling and already a deep red. He wasn’t going to be able to use what Reiki now saw he’d gone to the hut to retrieve: the witch’s carving knife. He’d dropped it at Reiki’s feet.
“But no,” the witch continued, not five steps away now. Her hand was still half extended, ready to shock Reiki back into paralysis at the slightest hint of movement. “Instead, here I am with a broken nose, and a twisted ankle” – here, she kicked Makoto in the ribs to thank him – “with two disgusting brats cluttering up my back yard!”
She loomed over Reiki, standing almost on the knife. She reached out for him. He lunged forward.
Her arm swept through the air over his head as he grasped the knife, and flicked its tip upwards.
It landed in the witch’s abdomen, and sunk deep. She gasped, and then coughed, her blood spilling out onto Reiki’s right hand. He fell backwards and skittered away, the soles of his sandals kicking up a cloud of dust from the dry dirt.
The witch guttered something unintelligible and fell forward, the knife sandwiched between her and the dust. A small triangle of metal stuck up through her back and thin rivers of blood trailed down her inert form.
He’d done it, the witch was dead. He’d… he’d killed her. Reiki felt his own blood drain from his face, and his vision began to cloud over. “Makoto…?”
He thought he heard Makoto reply but his tenuous grip on consciousness slipped from his grasp and he collapsed.
* * *
When he came to, he was flat on his back on the tatami floor of the witch’s hut. A fire was lit, and Makoto was laying on the far side of it, on his stomach. His back was a deep red mass of gnarled and charred tissue.
“Makoto!” Reiki sat up, ignoring protests from his shoulder.
Makoto stirred. “Reiki?” he asked, his voice small, quiet. “How are you?”
“What? I’m fine. Shut up. Look at your back…”
“Mm. It hurts a little…” Makoto’s attempt at a smile was more of a grimace.
Reiki tottered to his feet. “She’s gotta have some herbs or bandages or something in here.”
“I didn’t see anything. At least, nothing I was certain about.”
“Well we can’t just– You need a physician.”
Makoto sighed. “I don’t think I can walk all the way back.”
Reiki opened his mouth to protest, but to be honest, he wasn’t sure Makoto was fit for such a journey either.
“Fine,” he said. He stepped over to the witch’s cabinets and rummaged around until he found her bed linens. The guilt he’d felt at having murdered her was now nowhere in sight. She’d tried to kill them, she’d set Makoto on fire. She’d gotten what she deserved, and now she was going to be useful despite herself.
He tied a pillowcase around his arm like a sling, and folded a sheet into a giant triangle with knots at two corners.
“Can you stand?” he asked.
Makoto craned his neck. “What are you doing?”
“If you can’t walk, I’m going to have to carry you. But I don’t know that I can pick you up right now.”
“What about your shoulder?”
“That’s what I’m saying, I can’t pick you up.”
“You can’t carry me either.”
“On my back I can. We don’t have enough time for me to walk all the way back to town and then bring someone back up here and then carry you all the way back again, so stand up.”
Makoto shook his head, a real smile gracing his lips, as he hauled himself to his feet. “When did you become so bossy?”
Reiki stood in front of Makoto and helped his friend onto his back. A fiery lance of pain shot though his shoulder as Makoto settled in, but Reiki would not allow it to overwhelm him. He focused on breathing slowly, and managed to stay upright until the initial waves of pain passed.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay, Reiki?”
“Let’s not talk about it.” Reiki answered, and started walking.
* * *
Reiki never did remember much of the trip back. Snippets of the dawn light filtering through the trees, bits of Makoto’s labored breathing stayed in his mind, but the many stumbles, the throbbing in his shoulder, the last desperate push to the city’s western gates were all soon lost.
The two boys were spotted before they reached the gates, and a physician met them there. Reiki passed out the instant Makoto was taken from his back. His dislocated shoulder was set while he was still unconscious, and he recovered before the day was out, but Makoto’s burns were more serious. Although he regained consciousness quickly, he lingered in bed for months.
Reiki insisted on staying with Makoto for days, only bothering to return home after Makoto finally ordered him to. He openly disobeyed his father’s order never to leave the house again, and stayed longer and longer at Makoto’s bedside, running his most important messages for him. As the months passed, Reiki spent more nights at Makoto’s house than he did at his own, and he began to bring clothes, school supplies, and eventually his blanket to Makoto’s little hut.
Almost six months after they had returned from the mountain, Makoto was up and moving around, but still got tired easily. One afternoon, just after a nap and still in bed, he jokingly asked Reiki if he wasn’t trying to move in.
Reiki flushed, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
“Not that I mind,” Makoto said, “but what do you tell your parents?”
Reiki shrugged. “My mom’s just happy I’m still alive. I do whatever I want and she won’t say a thing to me. As for my father…”
Reiki sighed and leaned back, remembering the conversation he’d had with chichi-oya on the day he’d finally gone home again.
“I’ve stopped to listening to that man,” Reiki said.
“He was just upset I never delivered the message. I finished the whole story of what happened, and he said, ‘Do you still have the order?’ And then he was angry when I told him no.”
Makoto made a face. “Jeez, nevermind. We’ll be happy to have you.”
“There’s nothing there for me anyway. And I’m useful here. Your messenger business needs somebody to look after the books, your mom shouldn’t have to do all that. Then we can really make some money, and maybe I can pay you back for all the rice balls your mom had to make for me when I would show up unannounced.” Reiki glanced to one side. “And these past six months.”
“Reiki, what’s gotten into you?”
“I know I’ve been a burden on you and o-kaa-san. But I mean to make it up.”
Makoto snickered and then broke into a full laugh. Reiki’s eyes grew large and his face colored.
“Sorry, sorry,” Makoto said, putting his hands up. “You’re just so earnest. Reiki, you’ve never been a burden. A little selfish, maybe, but that’s part of your charm, right?”
Reiki had the feeling he’d just been insulted.
“I’m serious,” Makoto said, “we’d be glad to have you. O-kaa-san loves you, and I’ve always wanted a brother.”
Reiki studied his friend, trying to determine if he was serious. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. Go get your futon and the rest of your stuff. And then come back here and teach me how to cook these books. We’re going to be so rich.” Makoto grinned.
Reiki returned the smile. “Just don’t make me eat any roasted peacock.”
“Or spiced rice balls.”
The two boys shared a laugh, and got busy planning their future.