The somber silence of the forest was suddenly shattered by the shrill, piercing scream of a young girl. The frightened, heart-wrenching sound brought Ahn Sung Ji back to the moment, diverting his attention from the ground at his feet. Rising quickly, he mounted his black Arabian horse and set out in the direction of the plaintive cry... "Seems as if it came from the precipice..." he muttered as the horse, impatient for the chase, reared up on its hind legs, neighed loudly and bounded forward with the speed and agility of large cat.
Less than a mile ahead the dying echo of the scream was followed by the crashing sounds of a trio of burly men cascading headlong through the woodland brush. As they approached a steep slope north of the cliff side, one of them tripped over the twisted, exposed roots of a large tree. Falling abruptly forward, he slammed into the back of the bulky man in front of him. Both lost balance, rolled head over heels down the embankment and ended up sprawled like discarded rag dolls on the damp moss covered ground.
The lead man, Miyamoto, looked back and began cursing. "Idiots!" he hissed impatiently through clenched teeth as he scrambled back down the sloping gorge. "Get up! Keep moving! You've heard that cursed horse of his. He'll be at our backs in no time!"
Both men stood, one of them unsteadily, and followed their bearded leader into the darkness, up the opposite side of the ravine and once more into the dubious shelter of the trees. A myriad of stars winked indifferently above in the blackness of the night sky, while the solitary luminescence of a half moon guided their reckless steps.
"The 'Left Hand of God'..." said one of the two who had fallen. "That swordsman is relentless...a maniac!"
"He has earned that name...never lost a contest...survived every battle," declared his comrade, just before stumbling over a large stone.
"Watch where you're stepping!" snarled his companion.
"I can't see a thing in this darkness," the other complained, "what do you expect?"
"Quiet!" snapped Miyamoto. "Shut your mouth! That Korean has the ears of a lynx and the eyes of a hawk. He'll have no trouble finding us in the dark, especially with your yapping. Just keep your tongues and your feet moving!"
"If not for that girl..." moaned the complainer. "It's your fault we stopped back there, wasting time..."
Before he could finish speaking Miyamoto turned and delivered a well-placed punch to his midsection.
"I told you to shut your mouth!" he snapped as the man dropped to his knees.
Breathing laboriously, the portly outlaw who lost his balance at the ravine wailed; "I can't take another step...I need rest."
"You'll be resting in the grave if that samurai catches up with us," warned Miyamoto as he grabbed an arm of the man he had struck. Still gasping for breath as he was pulled to his feet, while glaring contemptuously at his leader, he asked... "Why don't we confront him? There are three of us."
"Better to face a hungry tiger," said Miyamoto. "Just keep your mouths shut and your legs moving like I commanded!"
Begrudgingly they followed their impatient leader, all the while murmuring curses imperceptibly beneath bated breath.
Just moments behind the fugitives, Sung Ji, relentless and determined, proceeded with extreme caution, listening intently to every sound detectable amid the chirping of the crickets. The exposed blade of the razor sharp sword he held in his left hand glistened in the velvet darkness, subtly reflecting the dim lunar light.
His present resolve to overtake the evasive trio was fueled by the girl's mournful scream, and the grim discovery earlier of the body of a woodsman they had slain in the forest. 'I should have confronted them this afternoon in Tsukimi,' he thought regretfully. 'If I had, that man would still be alive...and the girl...Those animals seem to be leaving a trail of death in their wake...'
Even contemplating what he should have done, he knew one reason for allowing them to escape earlier was to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. Miyamoto and his men were known for taking hostages if cornered. Too, he wanted to instill in them the same fear and helplessness their victims experienced before their demise. But, he reasoned, there was also a selfish motive upon which he based his decision; he enjoyed the thrill of the chase. Therefore he blamed himself for any harm they caused since leaving the village. He thought about the woodsman...and the girl's anguished cry. He had no idea who she was, whether or not she was a victim or captive of those killers, or why she screamed. He would know in due time, he told himself, the moment he caught up with Miyamoto.
Rolling thunder suddenly echoed in the distance, heralding the coming of a spring storm. Looking skyward he saw a heavy cloud bank on the horizon, revealed momentarily by a flash of lightning, its crooked tentacles spreading across the heavens. Dense black clouds soon billowed above, wind-blown and drifting in the night sky like a dark canopy, hiding the stars and slowly veiling the sparse light of the moon. Fireflies disappeared into the darkness and dense shadows of the trees as the next blast of thunder caused the ground to tremble, sending vibrations up the horse's body and along Sung Ji's spine. 'Even heaven vents its discontent', he thought as he steadied the Arabian, and abruptly ceased his advance. The thunder sounded anew, diminished, and all was silent.
Motionless now, the samurai was all the more aware of the sudden stillness that had settled over the forest. 'The quiet before the storm', he thought. It was eerie, the crickets ceased chirping, and there was no wind in the air to stir the trees, In that haunting quiet his acute hearing detected the hushed whispers of frightened men in the shadows of the rocks and brush ahead. 'They've stopped fleeing', he told himself, 'now they want to oppose me. Are they that eager to perish...' he wondered as he noiselessly slid from the saddle.
Once his feet touched ground he tapped the horse's left flank with the side of his blade, prompting the animal to move slowly forward. The silence was broken abruptly when the tumultuous sky thundered anew, much louder as the storm rapidly approached. In the seconds that followed the only audible sound was the muffled trotting of the Arabian's hoofs.
"Chung, chung ee (Slowly)..." whispered Sung Ji as the horse disappeared into the dark.
Meanwhile, waiting in ambush beside the path, two of the agitated fugitives were quickly losing patience and bravado. "Easy does it," whispered one of them to his portly partner. "He's coming this way."
"How have we come to this?" whined the other, his voice quivering in fear.
"Quiet!" said his companion, glaring at him, "he'll hear that babbling tongue of yours."
The pair, weapons ready, had chosen to hide in the rocks along the narrow path through the trees. Miyamoto, with sword in hand, strategically crouched behind the thick underbrush on the opposite side. He had decided that if he were forced to flee, he could lose himself in the trees, while his men would have their escape blocked by boulders.
Momentarily the horse emerged from the deeper shadows, moving slowly along the path. Although perceived, he was still shrouded in darkness, and near invisible to the armed assailants. As it passed within a few feet of the hidden pair, the lighter and more agile of the two leaped from hiding, intending to tackle and knock Sung Ji off the horse's back. Instead, he grabbed empty air as he slid across the vacant saddle and landed aground with a dull thud on the opposite side of the startled animal. The horse reared up and bolted forward as the second man emerged, shocked to find his comrade sprawled face down and stunned from the fall.
A sudden blast of thunder sounded, followed by an intensely bright flash of lightning that revealed the samurai's silhouette in the center of the path just twelve feet from his would-be killers. In an instant Sung Ji closed the distance, his blade cutting a deadly arc in the air, dropping one of the assassins. A second motion of the sword cut short the startled cry of the other who managed to half rise before falling lifeless beside his companion. In the next moment intense winds suddenly arose as the dark clouds above released torrential rain on the somber forest below, masking the sound of Miyamoto's frenzied retreat.
The samurai stood motionless in the downpour, contemplating pursuit, but reasoned that the surviving outlaw was alone. Had he imagined otherwise, he would already be on his trail, Reluctantly he decided to give way to the storm, preferring for the moment to retrace his steps and solve the mystery of the scream.
"Heaven's will be done," he murmured as he flicked the blood from his blade and re-sheathed the sword. Swearing an oath, he spoke aloud as the storm raged... "Run to earth's end if you must, Miyamoto. Vengeance cries out for justice. Regardless of time or distance, your evil deeds will not go unpunished!"
Far above, in the great expanse of blue sky, the sun shined brightly. That was the first conscious thought of which she was aware. The sun was warm, embracing...but where was she? That was the next thought that drifted into her mind, settling like a wind blown leaf on the calm surface of a mountain lake. Looking up, she gleefully clapped her hands like a child when she saw the 'morning moon' still visible in the sky. She loved day skies like that , where both of heaven's lights shared the same blue space.
Momentarily she became aware of her bare feet. The rough stones and driftwood upon which she stood were at the base of the cliff close to her father's house. Although aware of the rock and wood's jagged edges against the soles of her feet, she felt no pain. 'How curious', she thought. There was no pain; only awareness. 'Awareness....' it was good she told herself. But how did she get here, beneath the precipice? And the sun above....wasn't it just nightfall?
She searched her mind, tried to remember, but could not. Although the sun shone bright and clear, her mind was shrouded in mist...in a dense fog of forgetfulness. Where were her shoes? And her dress was torn...how did that happen? The dress was something she never wore outside. It was for sleeping only. At that moment she realized the dress was wet; not soaking wet, but damp, as if she had been in the rain...or the pool at the foot of the falls?
'Why?' she wondered, was she clothed this way.....and her dress wet? How did she come to be here? Had she been sleep walking? She had heard of such things, but could not recall where or when. Oddly enough it didn't really matter. 'I should return to the house', she told herself, 'Father will be there soon'. With that thought in mind she set out for home, suddenly carefree and humming an old Japanese 'ai-no-san-ka' (song of love), her father had taught her; "It was you mother's favorite," he had said.
She nonchalantly walked past the amassed driftwood, along the river's edge and the clear water pool fed by the small river atop the cliff. The cascading falls seemed louder than usual, and the river along which she walked was swollen and moving a bit more swiftly, as if it had rained recently. The ground beneath her feet was soft and damp; much more so than usual, she reasoned, as if there had been a heavy rain, perhaps in the last few hours.
Another random thought entered her mind; wasn't it just last night? There were dark clouds in the distance when she was returning home, she remembered, and the fresh smell of rain was in the air. She could not recall if it rained or not, but it occurred to her once more that her dress was wet, as though she had been caught in the rain. 'Last night....' she contemplated. 'It was...'
Her disjointed thoughts were interrupted suddenly as a vagrant breeze gently stirred the trees, caressed her skin and ruffled the silk of her dress. She paused, tried to rally her memories, and then apathetically shrugged her shoulders. Something told her it didn't really matter; the rain last night, the sun and moon above, or random breezes. She was on her way home, and standing still in the middle of the day wasn't going to get her there. Proud of herself for reaching such a wise conclusion, she walked happily on, humming her mother's favorite love song.
Eventually reaching the steep trail that led up the mountain, into the forest and to her father's house, she had climbed less than a hundred yards when she heard the frenzied voice of a man yelling. Looking back in the direction she had come she saw a group of men from the village running toward and gathering at the rocks and driftwood beside the pool. Watching with a curious fascination she noticed some of them bending to lift something from the ground. A sudden chill ran up her spine as the wind picked up again, more forceful this time, blowing her long black hair across her face, briefly blocking her vision. Pulling the hair back with her hands she turned her attention once again to the path, shrugged her shoulders anew in sudden disinterest and continued the climb. Her father taught her not top get involved in the affairs of others, she reminded herself. That was one reason he chose to build their house in the forest on the mountain, far from the village and prying neighbors. Life was less complicated and more tranquil there than in town where there always seemed to be something going on, regardless of the time, day or night. Whatever the villagers were doing at the pool at that precise moment didn't really matter. It wasn't her business, and the villagers always seemed to be busy about something. "Curious..." she thought aloud, as she picked up the pace.
Reaching the top of the mount she followed the age old trail leading into the trees, wondering why she was not fatigued from the climb. In the past she would be out of breath and had to rest before entering the forest. The thought that her endurance had improved made her smile, as she nonchalantly trekked toward home. For just a moment she considered going to the top of the falls, where they began to form before reaching the cliff edge. It was beautiful there, where the rushing water picked up speed...roaring as it hastily showered down to the pool beneath. Oddly, when she thought of that she felt a sudden chill, causing her to shiver. But as abruptly as it happened, she shrugged it off, as if it were incidental. Although it did seem extremely odd, she thought, this sudden disinterest. Today she seemed to totally disregard almost everything that would have, at any other time, naturally stirred her curious nature. So much seemed strange this morning, but she could care less. She was content, casually enjoying the sun and sound of the breeze as it animated tree limbs, prompting birds to flight, when suddenly, she arrived at the house.
She wondered where the time had gone. It seemed as if just seconds ago she was walking through the forest, past the bamboo and the verdant canopy that hid the sun and sky. And it seemed as if just moments ago she was at the base of the cliff, standing bare foot on the rocks and driftwood. But now she was standing in front of the house, puzzled to see her shoes resting at the base of the landing below the porch. It seemed extremely odd. She never left the house or stepped onto the ground without first placing her feet in those shoes. Ordinarily she would have seriously reflected on such curious events, but once again found herself quite disinterested.
She retrieved a cloth from a hook and sat on the landing to clean her feet. The birds singing in the trees and the jasmine her father planted near the house made her smile, and she began to think it was truly a wonderful day. The lilting melodies of the birds reminded her of the flute her father carved and taught her to play. 'How nice it would be...' she thought, to sit in the warm sun and play the song she had been humming on her way home. Rising, she replaced the cloth on the hook and turned toward the door.
She was startled by the disarray inside the house. Tables and vases were overturned, clothes strewn about the room and her mother's portrait knocked off the family altar. Although a rather grim discovery she seemed quite unperturbed. 'I'll have to tidy up before father arrives', she told herself, then immediately began cleaning and putting things in their proper place. When finished she retrieved the flute from her room, returned to the front porch and began playing her mother's favorite song. The melody calmed her and brought back memories she kept tucked away in her heart; memories of childhood, of romping in the grass in front of the house, chasing butterflies while her father worked in the garden. As a child she called them 'butter-flowers'. Her parents thought it was kawaii (cute), and didn't correct her pronunciation until she was older. She recalled the buzzing of cicadas in the summer, and the fireflies at evening, like miniature golden stars gliding and floating about so close to earth. She remembered frost on the ground as winter neared, and the snow that eventually covered everything, weighing heavy on bare tree limbs. She thought of her mother in the spring in her colorful yukata, singing while clean bean sprouts on the porch, periodically calling her name is she strayed from sight. Her name....what was her name? The thought was like a mild shock.
Her name...? Her father called her name often, when she accompanied him in the forest, for kite flying in the hills, or picking berries... "Curious..." she thought aloud, followed by an abrupt awareness; where was the music? She suddenly realized she had ceased playing. 'Too much thinking...' she imagined. Placing the reed to her lips she began anew, all her confusion carried away by the melody wafting languidly on the afternoon breeze. Nothing else seemed to matter. Perhaps the music would welcome her father home. He loved listening to her flute, and at times, tears would come to his eyes as she played. She was just a child of eight or nine years the first time that happened. She stopped playing immediately, but he asked her to continue.
"There is nothing wrong," he said, "you play beautifully, like tenshi (an angel)."
Remembering those words always made her smile. She whiled away the time that way, adrift on a sea of memories.
Eventually she decided she should begin preparation of the evening meal. 'Father is always hungry after a long day', she reminded herself. Once in the house she returned the flute to her room, where she saw her bedding on the floor. She didn't notice it earlier. How odd, she thought. She never began the day without first putting those things away. Perhaps she had been sleepwalking after all. Looking at her ruffled bedding stirred something locked deep within her subconscious. She began to think she should be resting. 'A nap would be good' she told herself, 'I should lie down. There will still be time to prepare dinner.' That was her last thought before drifting off to sleep.
Her last thought when she had laid down, 'there will still be time to prepare dinner', returned as she opened her eyes, stirred from a deep sleep by the sound of voices outside the walls of her tiny room. One, soft-spoken, she immediately recognized as her aunt Ryoko. There was a man's voice as well, gentle and calm, and the sound of children. Rising quickly, she hurried to the bedroom window. The sun light filtered in through the clean white rice paper of the shutter frame, accompanied by the sounds of her relatives talking.
"Has it been a year...? she heard her aunt say. It was more a statement than a question, as if she were thinking aloud.
"It has," her uncle, Junichi, replied.
"The house looks the same," Ryoko reminisced. "As if someone were taking care of it. There are no leaves on the porch or steps...everything is just as we left it."
"Perhaps someone from the village," said Junichi, "a kindness from someone who remembered your sister-in-law."
"Not likely." Ryoko reasoned. "Always keeping to herself, she didn't mix well with the townspeople. She preferred the privacy of life in the forest."
"It is beautiful here," Junichi declared. "And the village... Tsukimi. It means 'Moon Viewing', doesn't it?"
"The village? Yes, it does," she replied. "There are times of the year when the full moon is grand...gigantic, appearing larger than anywhere else within a hundred miles of this mountain. It draws many visitors, especially at 'Matsuri' (Festival). The best view is from this mountain."
While they talked, she had been unsuccessfully trying to open the window. She wanted to see and speak to them but could not undo the latch. Neither clasp would release, regardless of her effort, as if she lacked the necessary strength. 'Perhaps because I've just awakened', she thought. But that was rather odd, and had never happened before. She wanted to tell them that it was she who kept the house clean, inside and out. It was her responsibility since her mother had passed away.
It seemed as if something was trying to prevent her from speaking to them...as if the time wasn't right. Turning from the window, she hurried through the house to the front room. just before she reached the alcove entryway the door abruptly opened, giving her reason to pause. It was Ryoko, hesitating a moment, standing still and silent on the porch. Her eyes forward, she seemed to be staring through her niece. Momentarily she stepped inside. Standing just beyond the archway her sad eyes scanned the room. Oddly enough she gave no greeting, completely ignoring her brother's distraught daughter.
"Auntie!" exclaimed the confused girl.
Nothing... Ryoko placed her bags on the floor without a word before turning to leave. On the porch she sat to put on her sandals, then stood up, calling to her husband as she brushed dust from her clothing. "Gather the children," she said. "Before we unpack we should go to the tree."
She followed her aunt outside and a moment later saw her uncle coming from the garden on the east side of the house, her niece and nephew in tow, Calla flowers in their little hands.
Forgetting her shoes once again, she hurried after her aunt, then paused to call out... "Auntie! Uncle!" She spoke loudly this time but was ignored. None of them looked her direction. A cold breeze sprung up suddenly, causing her aunt to shudder,
"We should hurry," said Ryoko. "It's getting colder. Outside of the obvious natural beauty I have no idea why my brother chose to live on this isolated mountain."
The girl remained standing quietly where she had stopped, perplexed, watching her kin trek toward the deep woods. 'Curious', she pondered. 'They simply ignored me...rudely acting as though I wasn't here. Is Auntie upset with me for some reason?' The thought puzzled her more than all the odd sensations she experienced since becoming aware of herself standing on the driftwood earlier this morning...or was it yesterday?
Abruptly finding herself dormant and lost in thought she snapped out of it and reanimated, chasing after Ryoko and her little family. She followed them along what her father called their secret path: a path through the dense forest that led to a small clearing and the large tree beneath which he had proposed to her mother. The ancient tree, hundreds of years old, was actually two trees that had grown together, intertwined as one. It was immense, and no one knew how long it had been in the forest. For her it was special for many reasons; it was beneath that twin-tree that her parents shared their first embrace, where their wedding was held, their vows made and where her mother was buried.
Presently, as she followed Ryoko, getting ever closer to that great tree, she to feel an intense sensation of cold; a supreme cold that chilled her to her marrow. The closer she approached, the more cold and uncomfortable she became. It was the first real physical discomfort she had realized for....how long was it? She couldn't recall. There was something else. Not a physical sensation, but an extremely uncomfortable uneasiness of the mind or spirit. Within seconds she was overwhelmed and gripped by a mixture of intense, unsettling feelings of sorrow and gloom. It was almost suffocating. Unaware of her steps, she suddenly realized she was within sight of the tree. The coldness had intensified almost beyond her ability to withstand it. She paused then, watching as her relatives began kneeling and bowing, three times in succession.
She remained motionless where she was, that short distance away, observing as her cousins placed the flowers at her mother's grave. 'They're paying their respects to mother', she thought. Her aunt was crying, her uncle standing beside her, holding the children's hands.
"She was so young," sobbed her aunt, her voice trailing off.
Her husband, Junichi, nodded his head... "She was your sister-in-law..." he began.
"No," his wife interrupted. "I can accept her death, even though she was young with a new family. She passed away naturally, because of illness. It was Heaven's design."
Seeing her aunt react in sorrow touched her heart and brought tears to her eyes. In spite of the cold, she found herself stepping forward, approaching as Ryoko wept, and stopping just behind reached out a hand to comfort her. As she placed her hand gently on her aunt's trembling shoulder Ryoko spoke... "Not Aoi," she said tearfully. "It's Asako I'm thinking of. My sister-in-law died young but lived a good life. She found and wed her first love and gave birth to a sweet little girl; a beautiful, blue eyed girl. Toshiba said her eyes were the color of Heaven, so she must be tenshi (an angel). She came into this world like May sunshine, spreading warmth and love. Her life was just beginning when she lost her mother, and then to die in such a tragic way. Fleeing from those criminals...falling from this mountain."
As her hand passed through her aunt's shoulder, and upon hearing her name, 'Asako', spoken, an explosion of memories suddenly and violently assailed her confused and shocked mind. Like gale-driven storm waves fiercely crashing against the shoreline, pictures, images and emotions flooded her consciousness unabated. She saw herself back at the house at the end of a long day, preparing dinner for her widowed father. Three men forced their way inside. She struggled with a dark-bearded beast of a man. The others laughed as she kicked and fought...her dress was torn, she used her nails, scrapping them across his eyes while his arms were bust crushing ribs and squeezing the breath from her. She escaped his grip then as he tore a locket from around her neck. The others tried to grab her and furniture crashed to the floor in the melee but somehow she made it to the door, bursting free and running headlong into the sheltering darkness. Through that blackness, running in terror with the three outlaws close behind, she remembered reaching the cliff edge, choosing to jump rather than let them have her...hoping to land in the pool below and screaming in terror as she fell. That soul-piercing scream was audible to her even now. Lost amid her frightened thoughts and the helplessness, confusion and terror she had felt at that moment...she found herself screaming once again. not just in terror or sudden shock and awareness, but in rage...in supreme anger and malice; a malevolent hatred for those killers. At that moment she somehow knew they killed her father before finding the house...and her.
Now she knew her father's bones were here, buried beneath the rocks and ground alongside the ashes of her mother and herself. And at last she new her name; Asako. Her mother named her... "It means Heavenly Beauty Child," her father had told her.
As Asako's transparent hand passed through her aunt's shoulder, Ryoko shuddered anew, gasping when hearing the girl's terrified scream; not with her ears, but with her soul. At that moment Junichi placed an arm around her in comfort.
"What was that?" she queried. "That scream...?"
Junichi looked puzzled... "What scream?"
"That mournful wail," she replied, a hint of urgency in her voice.
"I heard nothing, other than the sound of the wind and the birds in the trees," he said. "You're upset. It's just your imagination."
Ryoko trembled. "Let's go to the house," she stammered. "I want to lie down."
Turning to leave, they were still unaware of Asako's presence. Ryoko took a couple of steps, passing through her niece as if she were made of non-substantial mist. The frightened, forlorn girl turned about abruptly, staring wide-eyed at her aunt's back, and like a doomed, lost soul watched as if from a distance the tiny group returned along the narrow path through the trees. As she watched, she became aware of the wind. Not just blowing, furling her dress or wafting her hair, but blowing through her, and at that moment all the curious and puzzling things she experienced lately suddenly made sense. It seemed as if she found herself standing at the foot of the falls just this morning, but it had been one year since she died.
'She died'... Those words reverberated through her weary consciousness, resounding like echos in an underground cavern. That is what her aunt and uncle were speaking about back at the house. They had come to remember her and her father on the anniversary of their deaths. She suddenly felt completely and dismally alone, as if abandoned by Heaven. The reality of it all let her bewildered, but there was one steady thought that remained. It was today, one year ago; the thought began to drift aimlessly in her mind sea of confusion; today was her memorial day.