Haikasoru

 

Space Opera. Dark Fantasy. Hard Science.
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Apparitions

by Haikasoru

From “The Futon Storeroom”

That night near midnight, when O-Mitsu came round for her as she had promised, O-Yū felt, oddly enough, just a little bit relieved. It was easier to go ahead and get it over with than sit with her mind playing through one scenario after another. As O-Mitsu had instructed, O-Yū meekly folded up her bedding, set her pillow on top, and carried it all with both hands as she followed behind O-Mitsu until they arrived at the room that was known as the futon storeroom.

O-Mitsu said not a word while they were walking down the corridor. Then, when they arrived and O-Mitsu placed her hand on the sliding door, she suddenly said something most unexpected, though she never turned to look at O-Yū.

“O-Sato’s forty-nine days have been fulfilled, correct?”

Indeed, yesterday had been the forty-ninth day. It was often said that the souls of the dead remained in this world until the forty-ninth day after their death and afterward went on to the next world. Because of that, O-Yū had been counting the days until her sister’s forty-ninth. She had been terribly worried that once that day had passed, her sister’s presence might dissipate.

“Yes,” she said. “It was yesterday.”

O-Mitsu nodded and slid open the paper door.

“Go inside,” she said.

Urged on by O-Mitsu, O-Yū stepped into the room. Musty, humid air enveloped her there. It was going to be hard to breathe in here.

“Now set down your pillow, lie down, and get under your covers.” O-Mitsu didn’t set foot in the room herself but stood in the doorway holding up a candle as she rattled off instructions. “There’s no futon, so you’ll sleep directly on the tatami floor.”

As O-Yū lay down as she was told, O-Mitsu—still blocking the doorway—spoke again. “Lie there until I wake you tomorrow morning. You mustn’t try to leave this room. I’ll be standing watch in the hallway all night, so if you try to get out I’ll know about it right away.”

After underscoring the threat that O-Yū couldn’t stay at the shop if she attempted to run away, O-Mitsu shut the sliding paper door. A thick, damp darkness fell across O-Yū from above, as though it had been waiting for her.

At first, she was sure she would be unable to sleep at all. Whether she closed her eyes or opened them, the solid blackness was the same. The quiet room swallowed all sound. She had gotten very used to the two other maids snoring or grinding their teeth in the night, and with the lack of noise unexpectedly keeping her awake, O-Yū tossed and turned again and again in her covers. It was while she was moving her body around in this manner that she had a sudden feeling that the smell of O-Sato’s hair was especially strong in her covers tonight.

It’s going to be all right. I’m with you.

O-Yū thought, This must be what O-Sato was talking about in my dream. She was the same age as me when she came here, so they did this to her too. She must’ve been so frightened. So lonely. But she cheered me up in my dream and said, “My spirit is with you, so you don’t have to be afraid.”

Such thoughts comforted her, and she was at last able to close her eyes. In no time at all her breathing grew as peaceful as a baby’s, and O-Yū had fallen into slumber.

And then, she dreamed again.

It was the same dream that she had had before. She was holding hands with O-Sato, walking through blackness so dark that she could not tell what was in front of her from what was behind. Her sister held on to her hand tightly and seemed to be walking just a little faster than she had in the earlier dream.

Something was following them. She could feel its presence just as strongly—no, even more strongly—than she had in the prior dream. When she listened closely, she could hear the scuff, scuff of its footsteps.

“You mustn’t turn around,” O-Sato said beside her. There was a smile on her sister’s face, but her eyes gleamed with a strong and defiant light, and the corners of her eyes were slightly upturned as though she were just a little angry.

Scuff, scuff. The footsteps followed along behind them. Whether the smell was coming from its mouth or its nose she could not tell, but the stomach-churning stench of its breathing was on the nape of her neck. It reminded O-Yū of when her grandfather had died about three years ago. Her grandfather had died of a disease that caused water to pool in his stomach. From the time he had become bedridden, he had been as kind and as gentle as ever—a model patient who caused little trouble for his caregivers. When he was near death, however, his breath had become so horrible it had made her almost dizzy to smell it. When she had asked her father about that later, he had answered that no matter how pure-hearted a person her grandfather may have been, his insides were rotting now as he neared death, and that was why his breath smelled so bad.

Did that mean the thing that was chasing them was someone who was dying? Was that why its footfalls sounded so leaden?

At that moment, O-Sato suddenly began to sing:

“Oni, oni, come this way,

To where you hear my clapping hands.”

She sang out loudly. Her voice was lively and strong. She sang as though she knew what the thing chasing them really was, and to get away from it, she was stoking up the fires within herself, daring it to catch up if it could. And so O-Yū joined her own voice with that of her sister.

“Oni, oni, come this way,

To where you hear my clapping hands.”

“Oni, oni, come this way,

To where you hear my clapping hands.”

O-Sato marched on steadily, leading O-Yū by the hand. From time to time, she would encourage O-Yū by looking down at her with a gentle smile. O-Yū would look up at her face, and when their eyes met they would smile at one another, thinking of nothing but their earnest forward strides.

She didn’t know how far they had walked when at last a faint white light began to appear in the blackness ahead of them.

“Ah, it’s dawn at last!” O-Sato said. “Now run, O-Yū!”

Pulled along by O-Sato’s hand, O-Yū broke into a run. Together, they raced steadily forward, and the white light grew nearer and nearer. It grew stronger and stronger, spreading out in front of them and stretching out overhead, until at last O-Sato let loose with a cry of joy.

“We’ve gotten away from it now!”

With that single shout, O-Sato leapt into the very heart of that white radiance, pulling O-Yū in along with her. O-Yū was bathed in the dazzling light.

That was when she awakened. O-Yū suddenly sat bolt upright. The inside of the room was still pitch black. But right behind her, O-Yū could sense something moving.

She whirled around to face it. Amid the blackness, something even darker stood crouched by her bedside. O-Yū could feel its body radiating pure malice, so vivid and clear that her eyes could almost see it, her hands almost touch it.

It raised its voice in a moan, and in unfathomable misery and frustration, spat out these words: “But the forty-ninth day already passed!”

And then it was gone, leaving only the darkness in its wake.

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