Among the trees rests a little shrine. You have to look closely to see the path, always in a shroud of shadow. One of the oldest memories I have, I am sitting on my father’s shoulders and he tells me never to go near. He doesn’t tell me why and I don’t ask.
As I grow older, I hear him tell my mother, my older brothers about the inugami sealed within the shrine. It is the duty of my family to guard the shrine and prevent the god from breaking free. My father doesn’t know I listen. These words are not for my ears and I don’t understand. Not truly.
I feel sorry for the god imprisoned in that unhappy shrine. I sneak food for it and dare the shadows of the path to place my offerings before the shrine. Gradually, I don’t notice the shadows any more. My mother teaches me to make paper dolls and I give the first one to the god.
There are special sweets for my birthday. My father catches me leaving one for the inugami. He beats me. I have never hurt so much.
I visit the god again after two months. I try to be an obedient daughter. I don’t want another beating, but the god is my friend. It will be lonely without me, so I risk my father’s anger.
It is the festival to celebrate the founding of our village. I turn twelve today, too. My parents give me a new kimono. It is my first new kimono, not handed down from my older sister who has moved to her new husband’s village. Father bought it last month during his trip to Edo. The fabric is yellow with pink sakura blossoms and blue leaves.
Our home sits high on the mountainside. We walk down the worn path together, laughing. Festival days are good days and I laugh at the warmth of the sun goddess on my face, the softness of my new kimono, and the clop-clop of geta on my feet.
My youngest sister wants a goldfish but she is too young and the poi breaks without scooping even one. I am good at this game and easily catch three before the scoop of rice paper breaks. There is one for my little sister, one for me, and one for the god. My little sister laughs and tells me I have one too many.
We jump. I almost spill our goldfish. My sister starts to cry but I say someone set off one of the fireworks early. I remember the last time that happened. I had cried until my older brother explained.
Screams. Shouts. Not fireworks. Guns. Men with guns and swords.
My mother finds us. We run. My father and older brothers stay.
The men with guns and swords are everywhere. So much screaming. So loud. We hide. Run. Hide. Run.
My mother carries my little sister. We are almost there. Almost beyond the village.
My mother falls, pushing me under a bush. She lies still and my little sister under her weight makes no sound. The men don’t bother to come close. From under scratching leaves, I see them walk back into the village.
When I speak to my mother, she says nothing. Shallow breath brings red spittle to her lips. Blood covers my hands and stains my new kimono. It scares me. My leg throbs, burns. It bleeds too and shoots fire when I move it.
I limp-run up the path. I want to scream with pain, but they will see me if I do. I’ve lost the geta and stones tear my feet. The path up the mountain never seemed this long.
Distant, I hear shouting. More explosions. They’ve seen me, but I’m almost there.
I scramble down the shadowed path, among the trees. The heavy rope comes away in my hands. For the first time, I enter the shrine. I tumble inside and only now do I wonder what drove me here.
I am crying and bleeding. I can’t move any more. I don’t know how I made it up the mountain.
The men are here. I hear them outside. They follow my blood along the path. They will find me and kill me. Like they killed my mother and little sister. Like they must have killed my father and older brothers.
The doors slam open. The men with guns and swords look down at me and laugh.
A growl. Uuuu.
A flash. Screams. Ban!
Red eyes. A white horse-sized dog stares down at me. It can kill me, if it wants.
Inugami compacts itself, shrinks to take less space in the shrine. The god lowers its head to my leg and gently washes away the blood.
This piece was heavily inspired by my love of Japan, its folklore and language, especially onomatopoeia.