(Named to the 2013 Locus Recommended Reading List; reprinted in Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 8, ed. Jonathan Strahan)
The tales varied as to why the well was outside the village rather than inside. Some say that an earthquake and rockfall destroyed the original town site and the survivors rebuilt the village at a safer distance, leaving the now-dry well where it was. Others say that a saké-addled farmer relieved himself in the well one night, so offending the spirit of the well that it had moved itself and had been dry ever since. Whichever version one believed, the well was where it was, and nearly every evening the boy called Hiroshi came to stare down into the darkness, and listen.
The well was full of music.
“Hello,” Hiroshi said to the unseen musician, as was his habit. There was no answer. Hiroshi was never quite sure what he would have done had the darkness answered him. There was a spirit in the well, of course. His uncle Saito, the priest, said there were living spirits in everything, and Hiroshi believed that. Still, the darkness did not answer him.
One fine spring evening his uncle Saito walked out of the village to where Hiroshi sat by the well. He had been a soldier and was now a priest, but it was as Hiroshi’s uncle that Saito came to speak with Hiroshi that evening. “Greetings, Nephew,” he said, and sat down beside the boy.
“Hello, Uncle. Is there something the matter?”
“I’m not certain. I would be grateful if you would help me decide, so I must ask: what is your fascination with this well?”
“Is Father worried? He’s raised no objections so long as I do not neglect my obligations.”
“My brother is a practical man, and you are a dutiful son to him. However, my question was not to my brother.”
Hiroshi blushed. “Forgive me, Uncle. I sit here because I like to listen. There is a sound coming from the well, from down in the darkness. It’s almost as if the music is being played just for me; almost as if I’ve heard it before. I don’t understand that, but that’s how it feels.”
Saito sat down beside him and leaned forward just a bit, listening. After a while he pulled back the sleeve of his robe and picked up a pebble. He dropped it over the side.
“What do you hear now, Hiroshi?”
“I hear the pebble rattling against stones... fading. Now I hear nothing.”
“No splash? Not even a small one?”
Saito nodded. “Nor will you ever. This was a well. Now it is not. Now it is just a hole down deep into the underground. The underground is the province of dead things, and dead things should not concern the living. Look around you now. What do you see?”
Hiroshi did as his uncle directed. He saw children his age flying kites in the waning light, running along the ridges of the flooded rice fields, playing games with tops and hoops, laughing.
“It all seems childish,” Hiroshi said.
“Is it inappropriate for children to do childish things? Or the living to do what nature decrees that the living must? This is your world, Hiroshi. There is nothing in that well that should be of concern to you. Will you think about what I have said?”
“I will, Uncle,” Hiroshi said, and Saito left him there. His uncle glanced back once but not a second time as he walked away.
Hiroshi, being an honest boy, did what he had promised to do. He thought about what his uncle said, and he studied carefully, for a moment or two, the activity, now fading with the day, around him.
“I’ve played those games,” he said to himself. “Time and again. They do not change—the kites pull on the wind as they always have, as they will for anyone. This song is for me.”
All this was justification and pointless. The only justification Hiroshi needed was the song he still heard, coming from the depths of the well.
The next evening Hiroshi joined his playmates at their games for a time to appease his uncle, but when play time was over and all his friends had gone home, he returned to the well. He moved quickly, with furtive glances all about to see if anyone was there to see. He carried a long rope coiled over one shoulder and a small knife in his sash.
“The rope was a sensible idea, but that blade may not be enough,” his uncle said. He sounded sad.
Hiroshi froze as his Uncle Saito stood up from his hiding place behind the well.
“How did you know, Uncle?”
“It serves a priest well to know how to look into a person’s eyes and see clearly what plagues them. You are plagued by discontent, Nephew. Unfortunately, unlike other spirits and minor devils, this one bows to no spell of exorcism. You must cast it out yourself.”
Hiroshi hung his head. “How do I do this, Uncle?”
“Perhaps by doing what you want. I still advise against it, but this devil shows no sign of leaving you.” Saito took the rope from Hiroshi’s shoulder and made one end fast to a post beside the stone rail marking the well. He threw the other end down into the blackness. “Do you still hear music, Nephew?”
Hiroshi listened for a moment. “Yes, Uncle. I do.”
“Then follow it down and satisfy your devil. Then perhaps he will leave and you will come back to us. I hope so, else I must explain your absence to your father, and I would rather avoid that duty.”
Hiroshi put his hand on the rope. He stared into the forbidding blackness as he often had, but he barely hesitated. “I will come back, Uncle. I promise.”
“Do not promise. I merely ask that you be careful. Powerful kami are drawn to such places, and most are not likely to be friendly to you. Take this.” Saito held up the shorter of the two swords he’d carried as a soldier. “Remember what little I taught you of the Way of the Gods. Most of all, remember who you are. I think that is the important thing, no matter where a person may go.”
Hiroshi took a deep breath and climbed over the side of the well. The last thing he saw before darkness closed in was his uncle peering sadly down at him from a circle of daylight.
That daylight quickly faded as the well shaft made an abrupt turn at the bottom into what looked like an ordinary cave.
Hiroshi listened very closely, but now he didn’t hear the music at all.
“That’s very strange. It was a most persistent sound when I heard it from the side of the well. Persuasive, I think,” he said, though Hiroshi still couldn’t fit words to what the argument was supposed to be.
Now all was silent except for a faint rush of air, as if the winds of the underground could not wait to escape past him and up the well to sunlight. Hiroshi’s hair blew about his face and tickled his forehead. The scent carried by the wind was of damp and mold, and a faint hint of a spice that Hiroshi could not identify at all.
There was darkness about, as he had expected. Indeed, he’d brought a small lantern along but found he didn’t actually need it. Once his eyes adjusted there was light there, of a sort. He could make out where to walk, where boulders lay in his path and where not. The only thing left to do was to choose which direction to go.
Where is the music?
He listened very intently, trying to hear around the moan of the wind in his ears. There had been a promise in that music, something wonderful beyond Hiroshi’s imagining. Familiar, too, though he could not say how.
After a few moments he thought he heard it again. He wasn’t sure. He wondered if there had been a concentrating effect from the well itself, like wind through a reed flute; the music was much harder to hear this much closer, presumably, to the musician. Hiroshi finally took his best guess and started walking.
He soon came to what had clearly been part of the underground river, now dry and full of stones. An old woman was waiting for him there, looking impatient. At least, Hiroshi thought it was an old woman; that was what he told himself when he saw her. She was more a collection of rags and bones than anything, but there was a face, and wrinkles, and a thin toothless grin.
“Give me those!” she said. Her voice was like dead leaves blowing across stones and her eyes glittered like black pebbles.
Hiroshi blinked. “Those? Those what?”
“Clothes! Give them to me!”
Hiroshi thought this very rude, but he was more confused than offended. “Who are you and why do you want my clothes?”
She ignored that. “You must give your clothes to me before you cross this river. Now!”
Apparently, now meant now. She reached out with one clawed hand, snatching at his sleeve. She managed to tear off a strip of his sleeve and gouge a line of red across his wrist.
Hiroshi took a step back. “Here, now, Grandmother! Stop that!”
She stopped for a moment, but she was looking at the blood on Hiroshi’s wrist. “You’re alive!” It sounded like an accusation.
“Of course I’m alive! What did you think?”
“That you were not, of course. Now I think you’re a fool.” She blinked, and for a moment Hiroshi saw some kind of recognition there, something beyond the cold darkness he had seen before. It didn’t last. The cold, relentless stare returned. “Clothes. You don’t need them. Not where you are, not where you are going. Mine!”
The last came out in a shriek of rage and malice. For Hiroshi’s part he didn’t know what she was, but he knew she wasn’t human. A kami, or perhaps a demon in—somewhat—human form. When she came for him again he had his uncle’s wakazashi out and ready. “Stay back, monster!”
She hissed like a snake and struck at him. Hiroshi dodged and struck back. It was only the feel of the blade as it struck something solid that told him of the hit. The rag and bone creature did not cry out. It merely stepped back, confused. “Mine!” she repeated.
Hiroshi took a deep breath and a firmer grip on his sword. “You’ve been in the dark too long, Grandmother. Don’t force me to strike you again!”
She looked at Hiroshi, or rather at his clothes, then looked at the sword again. “Mine,” she said again, “soon enough. I can wait.”
She cackled with laughter and then spread out her arms like a kite. In answer the breeze there swelled into her rags and she lifted off into the darkness. In a moment she was out of sight in the deeper black of the caves.
Hiroshi waited for a bit, sword at the ready, but she did not return. He finally put the blade away.
“Well,” he said. “That was very strange.”
He didn’t like to think of himself as a fool, despite what the creature had said. He had already met one monster on his short journey, and it seemed likely that there would be others. He wondered if the beautiful music was being played by another monster to lure him down.
“If so, it worked. But for what purpose? And why is the music fainter now than when I kneeled at the well?”
“Because it’s farther away, of course.”
Hiroshi’s previous encounter with the clothes thief must have left him more shaken than he’d thought, because he immediately reached for his sword. After a moment he took his hand off the hilt, feeling foolish. The speaker was a small man in the robes of a Buddhist monk. He sat cross-legged on the stones, tending a small fire upon which steamed a small kettle. Before him were cups and a ladle and a bamboo whisk for making tea. A traveler’s bundle served as a rest for his back.
Hiroshi bowed. “Gomen nasai, honored Sir. I did not see you there.”
“Obviously. I was about to have some tea, young man. Would you care to join me?”
The mention of tea made Hiroshi realize he was starting to get hungry. “Yes, thank you.”
The monk prepared their tea in silence, though perhaps introductions would have been more in order. Hiroshi shrugged and pulled out two of the rice cakes he’d brought with him and offered one to the monk, who politely declined. Hiroshi then ate both of them, though he remembered his manners enough to let the monk take the first sip of tea before he began.
He also studied the man as closely as manners would allow without staring. His initial impression of small stature was on the mark. The man was tiny, even shorter than Hiroshi himself, though otherwise looked more or less human. Part of Hiroshi was wondering if the monk would suddenly grow fangs and attack him, but mostly he wondered what the man was doing there in that place, and what he knew about the music. He held off asking for as long as he could, but that wasn’t very long at all.
“Excuse me, but what did you mean about the music being farther away?”
“Just that it is. You’re much farther from it than you were.”
That wasn’t very helpful, though Hiroshi didn’t say so out loud. It was more than a little irritating.
“I don’t understand. Will you explain?”
The monk didn’t say anything for a while, merely sipping his tea. Hiroshi’s annoyance faded. The monk seemed very tired, and very sad, as if the whole subject was more painful than the man could say.
“When you dream, where do you go?” the monk asked finally.
Hiroshi frowned. “I-I don’t know. Some say the spirit wanders, aimless. Others say you don’t go anywhere, and dreams are just stories you tell yourself while you sleep.”
The monk nodded. “Men believe many things. Some of them are true. Now then, where do you go when you die?”
“The River of Souls. Perhaps to be reborn.”
The monk nodded. “Now, then—where are you now?”
Hiroshi looked around, but the scene had not changed. He was in a cave far underground. His reasons for being there were perhaps not as clear as they could be, but he did know that much, and said so.
“You know less than you think. Go home, Hiroshi.”
Hiroshi blinked. “How do you know my name?”
The monk sighed gustily. “How do you not know mine?”
Hiroshi just stood in silence. “I don’t understand. You haven’t told me your name. I should have asked, but I didn’t mean to offend you—”
“I am not offended. I do regret the time you’re going to make me waste.” The monk carefully packed away his tea supplies and hoisted his bundle. “Shall we go?”
“I can’t ask you to come with me.”
“You can’t ask for me not to come with you. I choose what I do, as do you. I hope in time you will choose better.”
Hiroshi had no answer to that, because he didn’t understand a word of it. He merely picked up his sword and set out once more in the direction of the music, or as close as he could discern. The monk walked a few feet ahead, his staff making a rhythmic jingling sound from the small bell attached to it. Hiroshi thought at first that the sound would interfere with the music, but the jingle of the bell was so steady and constant that it was soon as lost as the sound of his own heartbeat.
This is a very strange cave, Hiroshi thought, even as he realized how foolish a thing it was to believe this place a simple cave. Hiroshi thought of stories he had heard about the Dragon Palace, where a simple fisherman once dallied with a princess in ageless luxury for centuries under the sea while his true home and all he knew turned to rot and dust. Except this was not under the sea, so far as Hiroshi knew, and the monk was certainly no princess.
The music was still faint, but by long practice at listening, Hiroshi was beginning to hear it better. “It’s a koto being played,” he said. “It’s lovely.”
The monk nodded, looking glum. “Yes. Akiko is very gifted.”
Hiroshi was so surprised he stopped walking. The monk merely glanced at him over his shoulder, waiting patiently for him to catch up.
“You know who’s playing the music?” Hiroshi asked.
“Of course. So do you.”
That was just more nonsense from his odd companion, so far as Hiroshi could see, and he didn’t dwell on it. Something he did dwell on was the simple fact that the music was getting louder. Another strange thing, since Hiroshi was certain they hadn’t traveled more than a bowshot from where he and the monk had taken tea together. He mentioned it to the monk, who seemed even more dispirited.
“We’re much closer now.”
“How can that be? We haven’t walked very far.”
“It’s not in how far you travel. It’s in deciding to make the journey.”
“I’d decided that when I climbed down the well!”
“If you say so. I think rather that you were traveling away as much as toward. You didn’t know where you were going. Now you do.”
“Akiko? And you say I know her? How?”
“You grew up together.”
“But I haven’t grown up yet,” Hiroshi said, though the admission pained him a bit. “And, although there are several girls my age in the village, I don’t know anyone named Akiko.”
His companion merely grunted. “Nor did she know anyone named Hiroshi.”
“Sir, I don’t understand any of what you’re saying.”
“You certainly don’t. Else you wouldn’t be here.”
Hiroshi didn’t know if he’d been insulted or not, but he rather thought so. He gritted his teeth but kept his voice level. “Then, Honored Sir, would you be so kind as to tell me where I should be?”
“Home, of course.”
“Very well—as soon as I find the music, I’ll go home. I have to know what it is and why it calls to me, else I’ll never be content.”
The monk nodded. “You’re not seeking music; you’re seeking an answer. I wondered if you understood that. Very well then, I will help you find Akiko. Yet whatever happens, afterwards you will leave this place. You don’t belong here. Do I have your word?”
Hiroshi hesitated, but he saw no good alternative. “Yes.”
“Well, then. You have mine. Only time will tell what either is worth.”
They walked for hours across what looked like the bones of a long-dead river. Hiroshi was amazed at how large the field of stones was and wondered if they would ever see the end. Now and then they came to a pile of white stones, standing alone in the flat rocky nothing of that place. He asked about them, but the monk merely said “stones” and nothing else.
Also, now and again, Hiroshi could have sworn that he heard the sound of children playing. He asked about that too, but the monk merely said that the children were always there. Hiroshi saw no children, but he let the matter drop. It was enough to know that what had appeared to be a cave was now a vast empty riverbed of stones, and overhead was a darkness that might have been stone or might have been a night sky without stars.
In fact, neither said anything at all for the rest of their walk, until the monk pointed to something rising from the stone field in the distance.
Hiroshi looked closer. It was a hill by the riverbed. He hadn’t noticed it sooner because it didn’t rise very far from the rocks at all. That was because it began beneath it, at the bottom of a low, sloping valley. Hiroshi saw the way down marked by two stone lanterns. They cast a blue glow through the shadows of that place. Corpse lights drifted past on the wind.
He stopped for a moment, listening closely. The music was much clearer now, more than enough to discern the instrument. Almost enough to discern the song. Hiroshi listened as hard as he knew how.
“I-I know that song. It’s called....” His voice trailed away. He couldn’t remember, but he knew that was the only reason. He knew the song’s name. He had known it long ago and now forgotten. And yet he was equally sure he had never heard that song anywhere but down the dry dead well. “Perhaps it doesn’t matter.” Hiroshi turned toward the entrance to the valley.
“It’s guarded, of course.”
“Guarded? By what?”
“Three monsters. You’ll have to face all three to reach Akiko. I’m not going with you.”
Hiroshi nodded. “That would be best. Still, do you know how can I defeat the guardians?”
“I didn’t say you could defeat them. I said you had to face them. You do have a knack for misunderstanding your situation, young man.”
“Honored Sir, with all respect, you have a knack for meaningless answers.”
The monk smiled again. “Pass the guardians first; then tell me what I have said is meaningless.”
Hiroshi considered. He did not want to fight the monsters. He was afraid, and he couldn’t pretend otherwise. He just knew that he had to go forward now. Not out of pride he didn’t have, or bravery he didn’t feel. It wasn’t even for the music anymore. Maybe the monk was right—he wanted an answer. Something that would fill the empty ache he felt every time he heard the music, that he knew he always would feel even if he never heard the music again.
It’s not as if I can stop listening.
Hiroshi unsheathed his sword and stepped past the stone lanterns alone. Their glow faded behind him much sooner than he had expected. As in the first part of the cave the light was very faint but he still could see—barely. He moved slowly, carefully, trying to step quietly over the smooth gray stones.
It didn’t help. The first guardian was waiting for him before he had gone a dozen steps.
“Go home, boy.”
Hiroshi stood face to knee with a gigantic oni. It towered over him, a good eight feet tall. Its skin was redder than blood, its teeth like tusks, its hair like a lion’s mane. It carried in its right hand a gigantic iron club.
For several long moments Hiroshi just stared. He couldn’t raise his sword, he couldn’t run, he couldn’t do anything.
“I asked politely enough,” grunted the oni. “Now it is too late.”
The creature swung its club. Too late, Hiroshi tried to dodge. He didn’t get the full force of the blow, but he got more than enough. His vision exploded like a Chinese rocket, and for a moment all he could see was white drifting stars. The first thing to come back to him, even before his vision, was his name, and it wasn’t Hiroshi.
My name is Yojiro....
The rest of his former life came back to him then. Part of him remained Hiroshi and did not forget. Yet now he remembered being Yojiro too. Growing up in the shadow of Fuji-san, and the people he had known there. He remembered being a young samurai, full of life and promise. He remembered the lesson he’d been taught in both humility and the transience of a life, the day he had died in battle. All this was known to him in the instant before he opened his eyes again, knowing himself to be Hiroshi, and knowing that he, once, was Yojiro.
The oni was nowhere to be seen.
Hiroshi sat up, gingerly feeling the lump on the side of his head. “I think I am still alive, yet I don’t understand how that can be. Why didn’t the ogre finish me off? I was no match for him!”
Hiroshi didn’t question the new memories that had come to him on the oni’s club; he knew they had come to him for a reason. He didn’t know what that reason was, but he was certain he wouldn’t find out sitting there on the stones. He got to his feet, slowly, and looked around for his sword. It was lying some distance away. There was a nick on the blade where it struck a stone on landing.
That will take some time to polish out. Uncle will be cross.
No help for it now. Hiroshi carefully sheathed the sword, then remembered to examine himself for any other injuries he might have missed, but there didn’t seem to be any. That seemed strangely fortunate, but Hiroshi wasn’t sure if it was anything of the sort. The other young man’s memories were still strong in him, and he still didn’t know what they might mean. There was also a curious gap in those memories, curious because of the vividness of all the others. Someone he could almost but not quite remember.
Perhaps, but knowing the name did not help. He couldn’t picture her at all, nor name the song he still heard being played on the distant koto. He could picture the instrument itself, see delicate hands at its silk strings, but that was all. Hiroshi took a deep breath and, when he felt he was able, he followed the music one more time.
The valley narrowed soon after, but the hill where Akiko waited was getting much closer, and the music, while distant, was very easy to hear. The same song, beautiful and melancholy. Hiroshi saw bleak earth rise on either side of him, as if he was walking into a grave.
At least the monster can’t sneak up on me from the sides....
The monster didn’t bother. It waited, serene, in his path right in front of him. A coiled dragon with scales so smooth and black they glistened. Its talons dripped venom, and it looked at him with unblinking red eyes. “Go home, Hiroshi,” it said.
After the oni, the sight of a dragon was not so startling, for all that Hiroshi could see death in its eyes.
“If I could go back, I would have. Please let me pass.”
“That isn’t the way of this place,” the dragon said, and Hiroshi was almost certain that, when it bared its fangs at him, the thing was coming as close to a smile as its appearance allowed. Hiroshi, terrified and yet unable to retreat, did the only thing he could think to do and drew his sword.
Now I am sure it is smiling at me.
Whether it was or not, the thing struck almost too fast for Hiroshi to see. It didn’t bother to bite him; its talons closed tightly on his right arm, and Hiroshi felt them piercing his flesh, sending their venom into his blood. A wave of agony washed over him, far worse than when the oni had struck him down, far worse than anything he could have imagined. For a moment he knew nothing, could know nothing through the haze of pain.
He did not wake, exactly. He heard a woman’s voice, speaking to him. He knew it for a dream, a memory, but real just the same. Akiko was speaking to him, somewhere, sometime... him? No. Yojiro. It was Yojiro who heard, and Yojiro who answered.
“You will return, Yojiro. Promise me.”
“I promise,” Hiroshi heard himself answer, in Yojiro’s voice. It was a promise he had failed to keep, on the day he died.
Hiroshi opened his eyes. The dragon was gone. Hiroshi was not surprised this time; he had begun to understand, perhaps a little. He had two sets of memories now. First Yojiro, now Akiko. He remembered her, her glossy black hair and sweet face—remembered their love and the promises they had made to each other. He remembered dying.
And she followed me. I’m sorry, Akiko.
There would be a third guardian, but Hiroshi put his sword away; he did not think he would be needing it again. He followed the music, remembering the words, remembering who had played that song with so much joy before and so much sadness now.
Cherry Blossoms on the Water.
The song was a promise of spring. A promise of many things. Hiroshi looked up at the hilltop. He could see the lone figure sitting there, bowed over the koto, playing the song that had called him down the well and away from his life. He was neither angry nor sad about that, but he was left with the problem of what to do. He did not try to climb the hill just yet. He waited for the guardian to appear, and soon he did, the rhythmic jingle of his staff serving counter point to the mournful koto.
“Greetings, Honored Sir,” Hiroshi said to the monk. Hiroshi was a little surprised, but not very much.
“Why wait for me? The way to the hill was clear.”
Hiroshi shook his head. “Obvious, perhaps. But not clear. Nor do I think you intend to stop me directly. Either of the other two could have done that.”
The monk nodded. “You’re perhaps less of a fool than I thought. How much less, though? That is not certain.”
“The first two guardians gave me Yojiro and then Akiko,” Hiroshi said. “What will the third guardian do?”
“Perhaps he will take them away again. Perhaps that is up to you.”
“What should I do?”
“I told you before—go home.”
“I will go home, for that was my promise. Yet I have another promise that I must keep first. One even longer delayed.”
The monk frowned but stood aside. “I will wait here. If you return....”
Hiroshi didn’t like the way the monk said ‘if,’ but he understood. He slowly walked up the hill.
Akiko sat with her back to him, her long white fingers on the strings of the koto. Too long. Too white. Her kimono too was white, and it sagged back upon her bony shoulders. Hiroshi remembered those shoulders, that neck whiter than snow. Grayish now. He could not see her face. Her back was turned and she could not see him, but she obviously knew he was there.
“Yojiro, you’ve come back to me.”
She started to rise, but Hiroshi stepped forward and took her shoulders in a gentle but firm grip. He tried not to think of the scent that rose from her now, so different from long ago. “Do not look at me, Akiko.”
“Because I’m dead. I was... I mean. Yojiro—I, remember. I waved my sword about quite bravely, then I was shot full of arrows and they cut off my head. My ankles were spiked.”
“You’ve returned,” she insisted.
“You called me from another place, with your music and my promise. I kept my promise, but I don’t belong here. Now I must go.”
She shook her head, slowly. “Let me look at you.”
“What will you see, Akiko? What will I see when I look at you now? We are not what we were. I’ve traveled the River of Souls before and returned to the living world. You must do the same.”
“Stay?” She sounded confused. “You must stay!”
“No,” he said.
“I promised to return, and I have. To love you, and I did. I remember. I... Yojiro, loved you. Let that be enough.”
“What will I see when you look at me? I remember your beauty. Do you want me to see what you are now?”
“I am Akiko!”
“Yes. You are also dead and your flesh has gone to corruption. As long as you remain on this hilltop down in the darkness, playing that song for me, you will remain dead. I don’t want that, and neither should you.”
“Please...,” she said, and reached up to touch his hand. Her fingers were cold, and there was no living flesh to them.
Hiroshi took a deep breath. He knew what he must do, but it wasn’t his decision. It was Yojiro’s, for the woman who died out of love for him. Forgive me, Akiko, but I believe I will need Hiroshi’s sword one last time.
“Please play for me,” he said. “’Cherry Blossoms on the Water.’”
“Always,” she said, and her fingers caressed the strings as they had his face and body, once long ago.
In one smooth movement, with less thought than a breath, Hiroshi drew his sword and brought it down on the strings just to the side of Akiko’s fingers. The taut silk strings parted with a high screeching sound like a wail of despair, fading, only to be echoed by Akiko. She twisted suddenly in his arms, fingers reaching to claw, not caress, but Hiroshi held firm and looked full into her ruined face, painting over the horror he saw there with one last strong memory of beauty.
“Good-bye,” he said.
His memory clothed her in full life for just a moment, then it began to fade, as did Akiko. In a moment, both were gone, leaving only a trace of sadness and a faint ghostly memory that was more like a dream.
Hiroshi was left alone on the hill with the shattered instrument. After a bit, he made his way back down to the valley again where the monk was waiting for him.
“She can move on now,” the monk said. “As you must. That was well done.”
Hiroshi just said, “I would like to go home now.”
They made their way out of the valley and back across the dry streambed of stones. Hiroshi looked at the piles of stones again, and again he listened. There was no music, but he did hear the sound of children playing. He was sure of it this time, but he said nothing until they were past the stones and walking through the cave back to the well. He looked at his companion.
“I thought you were a simple monk, but I also thought this a simple cave.”
“Who do you think I am?”
“If this is the River of Souls, then there are many powerful kami in this place, but I think you are the one called The God of Children,” Hiroshi said. “Yet I also think what you did, you did for Yojiro and Akiko. Not for me. They were young, but they were not children. Why?”
“We are all children, Hiroshi,” the monk said, and that was all.
It wasn’t an answer, but then Hiroshi no longer remembered asking a question of the little monk or, for that matter, remembered the little monk himself. Even the names Akiko and Yojiro were fading from his memory now, and then they were gone completely. Hiroshi was alone. He knew only that he was in a deep dark place where he did not belong, and the way out was clear.
Hiroshi saw blue sky far above and let it guide him as he climbed back up into the living world.