Night of a Thousand Spirits

Little Hisao was born into a family of hunters. For thousands of years, fathers would pass down to sons the way of the bow and the way of the horse.

Now, it was Hisao's turn to become one with the hunt.

His father pulled on Jun’s reins, stopping the steed in its tracks. He turned around and patted Hisao on the shoulder. There, he said wordlessly, nodding at the bushes in front of them. The vegetation rustled as their target revealed itself: a brown-coated pig rubbing its snout in the leaves, searching for the nearest berry to gobble up.

It’s time, Hisao's father seemed to say to his son with a steely look. Hisao’s fingers tightened, Jun's dark coat rubbing against his fingertips. His father pulled an arrow from his quiver, nocking it and raising his bow. The man was a force of nature when he was hunting. Hisao was always captivated by how the muscles in his arm tensed right before the shot, always transfixed by the sheer power that he held in his hands.

Perhaps one day, it would be his.

As his father closed his left eye, Hisao closed his left eye.

As his father took a deep breath, Hisao took a deep breath.

As his father fired, Hisao watched.

The pig went down with a thud. “Oh no,” Hisao's father whispered, his feet hitting the ground as he rushed towards the fallen animal. The poor thing was still squirming, quiet, pained whimpers clawing their way out of its dying mouth. The arrow stuck out of its neck, blood spurting from the wound with every ever-weakening beat of its heart. Hisao's father unsheathed his knife from his belt, a glint of sunlight striking Hisao's eyes as it reflected off the blade. Little Hisao took one last glance at the pig’s dying eyes before his father plunged the knife into its neck. It went limp.

In the forest, there was no sound other than the rushing of creek water and the rustle of swaying branches.

"Ka—" The words caught in the hunter's throat. "Kamis of the forest, forgive me." Hisao's father dislodged his knife from the pig's bleeding throat with a wet noise.

"Come over here, boy." Hisao's father gestured, and the little boy was by his side in an instant.

“Listen to me.” Hisao’s father put a hand on his son's shoulder and stared him in the eyes. “One shot if possible, always. Never cruel. Always kind.” He plunged the knife into its flesh again, cutting its abdomen open and soaking the soil beneath it with gore. The odor of guts and viscera was sharp and pungent, but Hisao and his father paid it no mind.

Behind his father's back, Hisao shot an imaginary arrow at a goose flying overhead.

“Maybe next time we will hunt enough to sell,” Hisao's father said as they trudged through the vegetation, hog now gutted and slung over his shoulders as Hisao rode Jun. “Today we must make do with what we have." Meanwhile, Hisao was daydreaming about what he was going to have for dinner. He loved pork. He loved cured pork belly with rice.

"Keep up, boy. The night is upon us, and I don't want you to get cut off by a nurikabe. Annoying things." Hisao tensed, immediately squeezing his legs around Jun to quicken his pace. A part of him wanted to stay, stay and watch the black skies come alive with spirit lights as the forest's yōkai painted the darkness with every color the eye could imagine. Just as they did every summer solstice before.

"Not too much pressure, son. He doesn't like that." Hisao sighed. Jun still proved to be an enigma for the little boy. Soon the outline of their house came into view, its paper walls and darkened wood caught in the last vestiges of the evening light. Hisao hopped off Jun and wrapped his hands around the hind legs of the hog as he helped carry the thing inside. His arms trembled as he bore half the weight of the pig, but he masked his discomfort as he stepped through the stone gate and into the courtyard.

“Let's butcher this in the kitchen," Hisao's father grunted as he hefted the pig up the stone steps. "We can cook dinner with the loin and cure the rest for later.” After the pig had been put away in the kitchen, Hisao's muscles breathed a momentary sigh of relief. Yet his job was not over yet - there was daikon root to cut and mustard spinach to wash.

A soft grunt of pain interrupted Hisao's father as he butchered the hog. Without speaking he turned around and seized Hisao's right hand, immediately noticing the thin stream of crimson trickling down from a small cut. The boy hung his head in shame.

"Boy, don't stick your fingers out like that when you were cutting. You are bound to hurt yourself." His father sighed deeply. "Well… this looks like a shallow wound. It shouldn't get infected. Here, I will get some gauze to cover that up." Hisao stared at the ground. His face was pink.

Soon the kitchen was dense with steam and fragrance, the pork loin stir-fried with cabbage and green onion, and the other vegetables in an array on the dining table. A heaping bowl of rice sat in the middle, and the fragrance of green tea rose from a terracotta teapot.

"Thank you, son," Hisao's father said as

Hisao and his father ate quietly, sitting cross-legged on the floor, picking bits of meat and vegetables with chopsticks and eating them with bites of rice in between sips of tea. The window to the valley below loomed above them like a watchful guardian. Outside, Jun whinnied.

"Why did you stammer today, Baba?"

Hisao's father froze mid-chew, the tip of an amaranth leaf still sticking out of his mouth.

"Why did you stammer? When you were speaking to the kamis? You never stammer, ever." Hisao was staring at him, his eyes round and dark with inquisitiveness. His father swallowed, putting his chopsticks down and arranging them on his bowl with mechanical movements. He was tempted to just stick them into his rice vertically, but he suppressed the desire.

"I… I was nervous."

"You're never nervous, even with the spirits."

"Well, today I was nervous."

"Why?"

"I don't know, son."

"Where were the spirits today?"

“In the forest, Hisao. Like they always are.”

“Are they gone?”

“What makes you ask that, son?”

“We didn’t see any today, Baba. The tengu in the mountains are gone. And so are the kodamas by the west valley. Is that why we didn’t have a good hunt?”

“I’m sure they’re still out there, Hisao.”

“Baba, what’s going on?” Hisao's father sighed. He looked tired. Old.

"Something'shappened to the spirits, Hisao. They've been going away.” His eyes stared out the window, losing themselves in the vista of the valley below. He couldn't see the yellow glare of incandescent lights, couldn't smell the foul musk of smoke and grime, couldn't feel the smooth walls of concrete and steel, yet their presence was keenly felt hundreds of kilometers away.

“Our world is changing, son. The time of gods and spirits has passed. Perhaps through the lens of comprehension, everything else is blurred beyond recognition.” A muscle in his jaw tensed.

“I’m… going to find work in the city.” He stared down into his bowl of rice. “I hear they have jobs in construction.” Neither of them spoke for a long time.

“Why can’t you keep hunting?” Hisao finally broke the silence. His voice quivered.

“The spirits have left this forest. With none of their energy left to nourish the trees and the animals, sooner or later it will die. I will disturb it no longer. The forest ought to spend its last months in peace.”

The little boy's eyes grew moist. His father reached over to rub his shoulder.

“Hey, hey, what do we always say? A strong hunter…”

“Always survives,” Hisao finished, wiping away tears from his cheeks, stifling a sob.

He looked out the window. He saw nothing but black.

“There we go. That’s my boy.” Hisao's father got up from his chair and moved over to his son, pulling him into an embrace.

In the arms of his father, Little Hisao felt even smaller than before.

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