The Lady of the Lake

Issue #86

No one knew why I was drawn to the sea, not even me. But when I fell into the waters, strangled by the scarf held by my own mother’s hands, and felt my human skin peel away, then I knew. I was a lady of the lake.

I slipped under the still surface of the bay to glide over rock and reef; plunged deeper yet to discover serpent and shell; twisted beneath branching coral and koi choruses. I breathed the sea through my knife-edge mouth, but my transformation was not yet complete.

Susanoo was to be married and the whole week through, people visited the ancient bamboo stand upon my island to tie their omikuji to branches so that it might be bound to the trees for one of two reasons. One: their fortune was poor and they would rather it be tied to the tree than themselves. Or two: their fortune was filled with excessive blessing and they wished it to possess the strength and endurance of the tree’s roots. Some of the omikuji were colored gold, intended for Susanoo himself.

That the trees could do both—accept the burden of bad fortunes and strengthen the good—was but one contradiction among these people. No one seemed to mind, not even me, for it gave me another thing to ponder through the day. Would the trees bend under either burden? Might too many bad fortunes tip them over until the roots were pointing to the sun? Or might too many blessings cause the tree to bury its roots so deep they one day emerged from the ground in a land far distant from here?

In rain and fog and sunlight, the faithful streamed across the wood bridge to make their way to the tree. Among them came—

“Min! Min!”

Whereas the others walked, little Sun Lin ran over the bridge, pressing through the robed elders to make her way not to the trees but to me, where she dipped to one knee and took up the hem of my kimono as to kiss it. Her fingers seemed to gleam.

“Lady—”

“Up with you,” I said, never accustomed to such displays. Most who dared come to this island never sought me directly, for they were too timid, too frightened of what I was with my blue-black skin and milk-white eyes. They might leave me offerings of sake, which I gratefully devoured, but they did not come close.

And what was I exactly? It was a good question, one even I asked myself, for I could remember a young girl’s life, being pledged in marriage and falling in love with one forbidden me. I could remember the swift bite of the scarf against my throat and the look in my mother’s eye before she pushed me into the water. Was this how every lady of the lake had been born?

“It is Susanoo,” Sun Lin said, pulling herself up with the aid of my kimono. She clung to me and glanced at the bridge, at the gray-green waters below, as though the sea god were on her very heels.

I couldn’t help but look too, for it was possible. The waters remained still however, as if lulled by the layer of fog which blanketed them. “I do not see—”

“He will come,” the little girl said, and wrapped an arm tight around me, trying to pull me away from the water. “He is coming for the sword.”

I looked from the still waters to Sun Lin and felt only dread course through me. My fingers sought the memory of a scarf around my throat, then slid down to Sun Lin’s thin shoulder.

“There is no sword in this lake,” I said. Sun Lin knew this as well as I did. I had given the sword to the then-future king, when he parted these lake waters and crossed toward me on bare feet. Sun Lin trembled.

There came a terrible wind to sweep the clinging fog from the lake’s surface. The wind howled beneath the bridge’s gentle arc, lifting the fog high into the tree branches as Susanoo foamed up from the lake. The vehemence of him was startling to me even now, and he arrived with extra fury, for he disliked me. Me who commanded the water in some small measure. Though he was god of the sea and its storms, he longed to conquer every droplet.

“Min!”

My name in his mouth was like thunder. I stepped backward, shaking much as the bamboo around us did. Lake water flooded the bank when he came ashore, and the people on the bridge looked but did not see what caused such a surge. Susanoo, someone whispered, and others fled.

“Tatehaya Susanoo-no-Mikoto,” I said and bowed deeply, making certain my kimono spread around me in a flattering manner. I was dead, but I didn’t have to appear as such. My black-blue bare toes peeked out from the pale hem, muddy.

Susanoo stepped ashore, water and mud squelching beneath his feet, feet which glimmered with a hint of silver and blue scale. Though I would never tell him, I had taken to watching him frolic his afternoons away as a fish in the deep waters off the island. He was beautiful when he thought no one was watching, when he let his arrogance fall away. Fish cascaded from his kimono now, flopping backward into the disturbed waters where they vanished.

“I am to be married,” he said. He pulled his long black hair over his shoulder and pressed the water from it. Sea stars and shells tumbled to the island ground. Sun Lin hid further behind my kimono.

“Are you, then?” I asked. “It was unclear, based on the continual celebration.” I gestured to the trees which bore his golden fortunes, to the crimson lanterns which swayed in the distance. The low rumble of music could be heard, if one listened carefully enough.

He stared at me as if he might like to push me under the waters; alas, I would breathe on and he knew it. And then his broad face broke into a smile and a laugh, the latter of which sent the bamboo shivering again.

“I do not like you, Min,” he said. “Your name is too short and you command waters that should be mine, and yet, you are not afraid to speak your mind. It is why I have come to you.”

Not afraid? I was relived I conveyed such an impression, for my legs trembled beneath my kimono. Sun Lin’s hands curled tighter into the fabric.

“Indeed?”

He inclined his head and a violently blue lobster emerged from behind his left ear. The creature peered at me, then crawled back into the wet tangle of Susanoo’s hair. Susanoo lifted his hair once more, pulling it into a knot which he secured with a gleaming, flowered comb. The lobster, robbed of its shelter, perched awkwardly on his shoulder.

“Before my bride can appear, there is a task I must complete, but this task may not be achieved without your great and generous assistance.”

This plainly made him uncomfortable, for he shifted and a tumble of orange-splattered koi fell out of his kimono. He nudged them into the water with his toes.

“My great and generous assistance,” I repeated. “And if I declined to provide such things?”

Susanoo’s eyes flashed, as though he had not considered me capable of refusing him. As he now did, it displeased him. He opened his mouth to speak but remained silent. I lifted a hand to keep him silent, feeling strangely emboldened. I was dead, but he could find ways of tormenting me; what was I thinking?

“Great Tatehaya Susanoo-no-Mikoto,” I said, “ever since I first came to this island, you have disliked me, going so far as to trample the bamboo and steal all of the golden koi.” He almost looked ashamed of himself, for these were the tantrums of a child, not a god. “And now you would ask my assistance in a task that you cannot fulfill on your own? I would ask how such a thing is possible; how can the mighty ruler of Yomi be so powerless that he needs my help?”

Was it a blush that colored his cheeks or had the temperature dropped?

“Izanagi is a trickster, is he not?” Susanoo asked. He spread his hands before him, broad palms dripping with lake water. Had Susanoo’s own father set him to this task? “Perhaps he has a wish for us to bury our grievances with one another, to come to an understanding—”

Our grievances?” I shook my head. “I have none with you—save what mischief you have wrought upon my island.” My island. He flinched at those words. “Perhaps this is but a way for you to lay claim to something you otherwise cannot.”

Susanoo bent to one knee upon the damp ground, looking up at me. Did he make himself smaller then, to seem inconsequential? The lobster took the opportunity to leap from his shoulder, back into the depths of the lake.

“Gracious Lady of the Lake,” he said, “I am humbled before you today. I ask your forgiveness so that I might— So that we might complete this task set to us.”

This task had not been set to us but to him. How long might one live if they denied a god? Susanoo could not drown me in these waters, nor could a blade pierce my heart, but he commanded all of Yomi, and what tortures he might devise there I did not wish to know. Sun Lin shook like a branch behind me, and I rested a hand upon her shoulder to calm her.

“Tell me of this task,” I said.

Susanoo smiled at me. “We are to reclaim Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi,” he said..

Indeed he had come for a sword, but not just any sword. He wanted the sword in the dragon’s tail.

Yamata no Orochi was no ordinary dragon, of course. It was said to be a hideous beast possessing eight heads and eight tails. It was claimed to devour princesses upon sight, spitting out their skeletons whole as keepsakes for their shattered families. It was said to plumb the ocean’s darkest depths without stirring any water, just as it soared the heavens without disrupting any cloud.

Some said the Orochi was eight valleys long, spreading so far and wide that cypress and fir anchored themselves upon its back; said that its winter-cherry eyes could root a man to the ground much as these trees had taken hold. It was said to be the color of moss, the color of night, and that one might step upon its back and never know until one of the eight monstrous heads lifted and swallowed the person whole.

Some of this was truth; some of this was tale. I had never spit out a skeleton whole, though indeed I had once tried, and surely I was not eight valleys long. One valley, perhaps, when I stretched as far as I might.

“If the sword is within the dragon’s tail,” Sun Lin said, “then how might Susanoo claim it?”

She danced around me as I walked away from the shore. Susanoo had gone his way and I was to go mine, but I paused a moment, letting my toes sink into the cool mud near the island’s well.

“He would cut it out,” I said, and crouched beside Sun Lin. “Have you seen Orochi?”

She shook her head, hair whispering about her cheeks which seemed to glow. “No, and do not wish to. If there are eight tails, how might he know which tail holds the sword?” Her eyes were wide and dark like cups of sake, clearly afraid by the idea even as she sought to sort it out.

“He might have to cut them all open,” I said. Susanoo would relish that, would he not? I wondered if he knew, knew that I was the beast who harbored the sword.

“They say—” Sun Lin had to take a gulping breath, and thunder rolled through the clouded sky. “They say the monster can turn itself inside out, becoming an old woman. They say it eats little girls and spits their bones out. They say—”

“Nonsense,” I said. “The bones would be fun to crunch, wouldn’t they?” Incidentally, they were.

Sun Lin’s eyes widened more than I thought possible. “Maybe I— Maybe I would see this monster,” she said. She drew herself up as tall as she might, lifting a broken bamboo branch as a sword. “Should it come to this place, I would defend us.”

One day, it would be her place to do just that, but not today.

“Will you go with him?” she asked.

I crossed to the well to draw up a bucket of water, with which I washed my feet clean. “I can do nothing else,” I said, realizing then who Susanoo was taking as his bride.

Inada was the princess-daughter of two earthly elders. She was the last of eight, the other seven having been given to me in tribute. The elders did not see it as tribute so much as losing their precious children.

Every year, I had taken a daughter from them, out of gravest need as I tried to sustain myself through the long winter. I did not enjoy this thing; in the girlhood I could remember, there was warm rice and cold tuna. These were the things I longed to eat, but the taste of them now was like ash upon my tongue. But the flesh of young women— What god could be so cruel as to make me desire such a thing? Only sake obliterated that desire.

I crossed the lawn to the small house upon the island. Sun Lin followed, asking no more questions as I kneeled before my calligraphy table and spread out a fresh page. My brushes were clean, my inks fresh, and I wrote a long and winding prayer upon the page, letting the ink run like a black river into every pore of the paper. When I had finished, I set the brush aside and folded the page into a hundred tiny creases before at last taking up a length of twine.

Even a monster might make a prayer.

I woke naked on the shore of the deep bay the following morning, sand crusted to the side of my face. I stretched in the morning sun and looked to the brightening sky above; larks spread through the thin clouds, singing before they took to the trees. Fish slipped past my toes with a murmur and then were gone. Something else inside me stretched, too, reaching.

My head ached and I longed to slip back under the waters. I longed to shed the confines of this human form but could not chance Susanoo discovering me here as Orochi. He would strike and my blood would foul this sacred place. Instead, I pulled myself up and walked slowly to the house, where I bathed and dressed in a fresh kimono.

By the time Susanoo returned, pulling a yellow sea star free from his cheek, I had eaten a simple meal of mussels and clams. I felt as though I should pack something for our journey, but I had no idea what I might take. When I came to this place, I brought nothing, and as I prepared to leave, I could think of nothing I should take. I penned Sun Lin’s name on a fresh sheet of paper and tied it with a bright red ribbon. I placed it on the house steps.

I did not know if I would return to this place; I presumed not, but as Susanoo had said, Izanagi was a trickster. Could it be he had brought me all this way to simply end my life now, for the surrendering of a sword? I bowed to Susanoo when he approached, and he shook his head at me.

“We are side by side in this matter,” he said. His own kimono was bright today, white with great patches of golden-orange. His hair was knotted atop his head, and that same comb gleamed amid the darkness. “You have granted me this great thing, and so if you bow to me, I must bow to you.”

He did bow to me then, and I wondered how much such a thing shamed him. He was a great god, above nearly everyone; to bow to a lady of the lake could not have pleased him.

“Do you know where we shall find this orochi?” I asked him as our path led us from the familiar shoreline and deeper into the trees. Morning’s fog still clung in the greenery, masking everything, though I could still see Sun Lin’s waving hand as we departed.

“It will come for the daughter,” Susanoo said, and gestured down the long trail before us, “at the home of the earth elders. Their weeping shall no doubt guide us; I can smell the salt of their tears now.”

In a way, this was true, for I walked with Susanoo toward the house of the earth elders and longed for the eighth daughter. The others had been sweet, the second one terribly so.

“And how will you claim Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi?” I looked sideways at Susanoo, at the sword strapped to his back. They called it the Slash of Heavenly Wings, and I could almost feel its caress. Susanoo returned my gaze, level and even as we continued through the forest.

“It is certainly a difficult beast,” he said, “for with eight heads, the gods have given it sixteen eyes. How may one avoid such attention? Fearsome, for it has devoured seven elder daughters. And yet...”

He paused and we walked in silence until I prodded him. “And yet?”

“Would you find me guilty of flooding a farmer’s fields if I did it to smother a fire?”

I made no reply to this, understanding the weight of the look Susanoo gave me. It did not ease my mind. The deeper into the forest we went, birdsong and the wind’s sigh became our companions. I did not need Susanoo to guide me along this path, for I knew it as surely as he did; I had traveled this path seven times before. This would be the last.

“Do you love this woman you will marry?” My question seemed disrespectful, but I asked it anyway, knowing it did not matter when Susanoo struck me down now. If my blood were to flood this forest, perhaps the trees would grow stronger for it.

“I know the orochi better than I know she who is to be my bride,” he said. “This brings me sorrow and steals my sleep. How does one end the life of a noble creature?”

I looked at Susanoo in the lingering fog and was bewildered enough to stop walking. He took three more steps, realized I was not at his side, and turned to look at me. His face looked guilty, and a golden koi slipped out of his kimono sleeve to flop on the ground between us.

Susanoo lifted the fish and pulled it back into the relative safety of his wet kimono. He cleared his throat.

“This woman I am to wed,” he continued, lifting fingers to touch the comb in the knot of his hair, “has known one life, a life I mean to take her from. How will it be, becoming bride to the mighty Tatehaya Susanoo-no-Mikoto? I will have ended the only life she knows.”

I fell into step beside him once more. “All noble creatures know when their time is come,” I said. “When one life is to end and another to begin.”

“Mmph.”

Silence again, and then it began to rain. The rain pattered upon the bamboo and the fog around us grew thicker. The rain soaked us as we walked on and as my kimono grew wetter, my flesh reacted to the water. I felt the first pricklings of the change and looked at Susanoo, god of storms and sea, who was watching me.

“You will forgive me this thing,” he said.

I wondered at his insistence. “If you forgive me this thing.”

In the pouring rain, I surrendered to the creature inside of me. My human flesh gave way to dragon scale, which gleamed gold-green in the storm. No fir, no cypress, only immense power coiled within this gods-crafted body, splitting into eight snarling heads and eight whipping tails. Even Susanoo cried out at the sight of it—of me. I dug claws into the muddy ground and leapt not for him but deeper into the forest, toward the home of the elders and their sweet, eighth daughter.

It was an instinct I could no longer deny. Yamata no Orochi demanded tribute, feeding, and when I burst through the bamboo, the elders shrieked and screamed for Susanoo, Susanoo who was close on my heels, The Slash of Heavenly Wings slicing through the air. He came from the bamboo tops, flying like a graceful egret. His kimono whipped in the storm, bright and sharp like his sword. I lunged for the house and saw no sign of the eighth daughter. She was not awaiting me; the elders had not offered her up.

I rounded the house with a bellow, snapping my tails into the trees. The bamboo leaned as though the entire world had been thrown off balance. And then I saw her, her eye’s gleam in the ornate comb that Susanoo wore in his ebon hair. The comb’s teeth curled as her very own smile, flower hands free to bloom under the warmth of his protection.

Trickster! I snarled and leapt for him as he came, twisting one head toward the earth elders as seven others went for Susanoo. He laughed as we clashed, looking happier than I had ever seen him.

The bite of his sword was sharp, yet there was some part of me that longed to be cut apart. It was this part of me that was awakening, stretching on the shore, trying to escape. When I leaned into the thrust of the sword, Susanoo withdrew, crying out his surprise.

Then I smelled it, the sweet lure of sake. It was sheltered from Susanoo’s storm, eight beautiful and gleaming masu brimming with fresh sake. Each sat through its own gate, as if in offering, and I could not help but turn toward them.

Even as I bent each of my heads, I knew this was a trap. Eight gates for eight heads with eight thirsty mouths that could never resist the varied flavors of the rice wine. The flavors deepened or mellowed depending on the rice; this sake had come from rice fields strewn with cherry blossoms and this from rice allowed to dry under an autumn sun. I plunged forked tongues into the sake, over and over, knowing that this was the moment; when the sake began to soak me the way the rain did, releasing another piece of me.

This was the moment, but it was not Susanoo’s voice which said again “you will forgive me this thing.” I lifted my heads, maws dripping with sake, and stared at the strange brilliance of little Sun Lin there. She smelled like sake but glowed with the radiance of a thousand heavens, eternal sun.

Amaterasu—a trickster’s daughter, I thought, a second before I knew the bite of Susanoo’s fierce sword.

He made seven cuts, sure and swift the way he brought a storm. He lingered over the last cut, though, and I whipped away from Sun Lin to swallow Susanoo whole. He wriggled down my throat like a caught fish, until deep inside me he swung and severed the eighth head from the inside out. I fell into the masu of sake, and the thing inside me was freed.

This part of me, gleaming like the moon, stretched toward the bamboo tops then fell through the whispering green, human form reassembling itself from memory, so that when I landed it was on hands and feet made cold from the storm, hands and feet the color of palest jade. Water flooded my skin, running from my hair that was the gray-green of the lake.

“Min!”

Susanoo thundered my name yet again, though this time, it was a sorrowful thing—and not wholly my name, for this part of me was no longer a lady. Tsukuyomi, I thought. My eyes moved to Sun Lin, who crouched in the mud and spilled sake.

“Sister?” I asked of her.

She glowed like the sun and I like the moon, and together our eyes sought stormy Susanoo. He stood over my dead dragon body, The Slash of Heavenly Wings poised to cut through the tail which held the sword he sought.

Susanoo’s eyes met my own. Was he surprised or was it pleasure that made his lips lift in an unsteady smile? He said nothing, only turned his sword within his hands and offered it to me. The Slash of Heavenly Wings felt like fire in my hands, and I drew the blade down the dragon’s tail, to reveal the gleam of another sword within.

We each jumped for it. Smaller than Susanoo, I moved more swiftly—like a dragon yet!—sliding beneath him as I abandoned his sword. But I could not curl my hands around the slick hilt before Amaterasu did. She pulled the Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven from the dragon’s tail. Hard rain washed the blood clean and she laughed, the coming of sunrise after a long winter.

“Day and night forever divided,” she whispered, taking a backward step from Susanoo as he reclaimed The Slash of Heavenly Wings. “Izanagi willed it so.”

Something inside me died at that; Sun Lin no longer at the temple, no longer pattering small feet across my bridge. I shook my head, advancing on her. “There are times when moon and sun occupy the same sky,” I said.

Amaterasu snarled and lunged. Susanoo’s sword saved me, his storm obliterating her sunlight. The swords together were like thunder and lightning twined, strong and bright and the ground shook beneath us.

“You will forgive me this,” Susanoo said, and The Slash of Heavenly Wings rang once more against the Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven. Susanoo beat Amaterasu backward until I cried him off. He stared at me, fish slipping from his kimono as Amaterasu fled into the bamboo.

Everywhere she went there trailed a golden light, and I watched until I could see it no more. Only then did I look at Susanoo, picking myself up from the sake-drenched mud.

“The sun has its course,” I whispered, “and so too the moon, but the storms go where they will.”

I fled through the bamboo, opposite the sun. Susanoo, with his gleaming comb and bride, flooded the land, sending the elders fleeing for the hills as my blood washed deep into the roots of the bamboo, of the fir. I still do not carry these things upon my back. The moon is cold and empty.

I walked back to the small house upon the island and there, kneeled again before my calligraphy table. I spread out a fresh page with these strange new hands and stroked my brushes slow over the paper. I drew a single name there, a prayer in its own way: Amaterasu.

When I had finished, I set the brush aside and folded the page into a hundred tiny creases before at last taking up a length of twine and walking to the ancient bamboo.

Even this moon might make a prayer.


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E. Catherine Tobler knows something about walking tightropes, working as both an editor and writer. Her fiction has appeared in in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including four stories set in her traveling circus universe. In June, The Kraken Sea, a novella set in this circus universe, will be available from Apex Book Company. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, www.ecatherine.com.

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