When I left my home to walk the road, I was very young, and many people came to watch. They wore their finest robes, and called my name along with prayers and chants to all the gods. “There is a young man who will do something,” they whispered. “That one, he should be watched, for surely he will live a charmed life,” they sang. “See, there? That one, who starts the road so early? Why can you not be more like him?” Mothers admonished their irresponsible sons with my name as a curse. Fathers blessed their blossoming daughters and spoke of engagement promises when I returned.
I was the youngest who had ever prepared for the journey. Some of the elders, they said “He will change his mind.” They said it when I was four. “He will see,” they said when I was six. When I was eight, they shook their heads, saying “He does not understand.” When I was ten, they said “Do not do this,” as I walked through the gates and set my feet upon the road.
Being ten, I had nothing of value. Only my own robe, made special by my mother and stained with her tears, so the color was of cherry blossoms rather than the apples it should have resembled. Only my father’s staff, which had been carved by his father’s fathers when the world was new and glowed with an ancient life of its own. Only a single rice ball in my sash, which my sister had rolled for me while laughing and crying and praising my drive and damning my stupidity.
That was all right. These things, they did not matter. Only the road mattered.
I did not say goodbye. I did not think to do so. I saw only the road ahead. The steps I had already taken in my life were of no further interest to me.
I left as the sun rose, and pulled my robe up as a hood to shield my eyes. The sun drew patterns of gold and onyx, painting the road with ideograms as it shone through the brittle branches of the sakura trees to either side. I did not laugh at their wonder, or stop to ponder the omens they might contain. As errant blossoms drifted around me, I blew them away from my face with irritation, keeping my eyes on the spot where I would next place my foot. When the sun had fully risen, when the patterns of shadow were no more, when the blossoms were merely drifting in the wind behind me, I thought of them no more. They had been lost to my previous steps, and no longer mattered.
When I had walked a few hours, I saw another man on the road. He walked alongside me for a while, and tried several times to ask questions. “Who are you,” he asked. “Where are you coming from,” he queried. “Do you miss your family,” he inquired.
I did not answer. Merely kept my head down. His questions would not shorten the road, would not help me reach the end. Eventually he stopped asking them. I think he was upset, or confused by my silence, but I did not spare breath to tell him that the road was what mattered, that the past was behind me and worrying about the present was a silly endeavor. The future was where I was heading, and I would reach it just the same with or without his questions and queries, with or without thinking about my family or how long ago I had left them. My sister’s face was already a faded tapestry, my mother’s nothing more than mist. What use had I for their memory? I would see them soon enough, when I returned.
He turned away at the second mile post, glancing once over his shoulder at me. Some might have taken his expression for one of pity as he shook his head at me and went into one of the many inns that dotted that portion of road. But his pity, misguided as it was, was forgotten as quickly as his questions. What use did I have to question the feelings of strangers who had happened to walk beside me? None at all, and the sooner I remembered that and forgot him and his questions and his pity, the sooner I could devote all of myself to the journey.
As the sun was setting, a flock of blackbirds took flight, scattered by the sound of my father’s staff crunching in the dead leaves that littered the path. They flew above me, the last rays of the day cutting through the gaps in their feathers, their cries arrayed like a dirge, but I had neither eyes to see nor ears to hear. They had left my road, and had ceased to matter.
As darkness came, I grew cold and pulled my robes tighter to myself. For the first hour, there was nothing but blackness save for the faint stripe of the sun’s last gasp in the west. For the second, the moon gave her light, frosting everything in silver and making every leaf and bramble gleam. By the third, my eyes were aching and sore from being lanced by such reflections, and I stared only at my feet as they carried me forward.
I did not hear her before she spoke. One moment, I walked alone, and in the next there was a woman beside me. I glanced at her only briefly and mostly out of surprise, then returned my gaze to the earth in front of me.
She was pallid and white, woefully thin. Her face was marked with rouge and scarlet inks that made it resemble the kabuki masks my father loved. As I walked along, staring downward, it took several minutes before I realized that while my shadow walked with me, hers did not.
“Why do you walk so, little one?” she asked me. I pursed my lips and said nothing.
“Do you have no family to care for you? I have no family, either. All gone,” she said, with a queer up tilt to her words and a chuffing between them that reminded me of the way father sometimes laughed when he was not supposed to. I still said nothing.
“You know, it is polite to look at those who are addressing you, little one.” I might have been disgusted with how she referred to me – little one, indeed; I was walking the road, and surely as much a man as any – had I found it within myself to care. She was nothing, ephemeral. Merely a woman who had lost her way and then her life, probably in the winter’s heavy snows. She was no business of mine. I kept walking.
She was with me all through the night, first cajoling, then pleading, then weeping and finally begging. The hungry dead want little in this life save acknowledgement. But I would not give it to her. It would be dangerous, for both of us, and would serve only to slow my progress. It was her burden that she had died in such a state of shame and imbalance that she must linger. There was no reason to make it my own.
As the sun began to rise, I sensed a change in the air. Whatever foulness sustained her in the dark faded when the eye of Heaven was upon it, and she vanished, mid-question. I felt lighter, somehow, but still chilled, both from her presence and the cool night mist that had surrounded us. I pulled my robes tighter still, and continued on, moving a little faster now.
By the time the birds began their morning song and the last drops of dew were trickling away from the scant flowers, I had already put the onryo behind me in mind as well as body. She was of no interest to me. Let her bother some other supplicant. She would not deter me.
I pulled my sister’s rice ball from my sash, staring at it. It bobbed before me like some unknown planet, bouncing a bit in orbit with each step. I considered it for nearly an hour, whether I should or should not take a bite. There was no hunger motivating the thought, no desire to see if she had slipped a bit of fish sausage in the middle; it was merely fuel that would allow me to reach the end of my path, and after long accounting, I determined I had no need of it yet.
The road was deserted on my second day. I saw no travelers either coming or going. The inns and shops to either side were curiously silent, with no gawkers or old women staring at travelers with knowing smiles. Past the initial birdsong as dawn crested, there was no sound except for the thudding of my feet into the dust and my own labored breathing. Though now I had been walking for a full twenty-four hours, I did not feel tired. Tiredness was the body betraying weakness, crying out for the gift of laziness and slovenly behavior; my body was made of sterner stuff, and would carry me forward for as long as it must. I knew this in my heart to be true.
For another four days I walked before I saw anyone else. This did not surprise me; my village is distant from most things of importance, rarely visited. Sometimes people would walk the road, coming from the west, and would pass by, but any such travelers would have been behind me, unlikely to catch up. My steady pace, and the blessing of not needing to stop for rest – since the first night, upon seeing the onryo, I had not found myself tired enough to sleep – or eat – I peeled away a single grain of rice from my sister’s present each hour, but otherwise felt no hunger – ensured that I would remain ahead of any who had departed after me.
The fourth day seemed to begin just as all the others had. The sun rose, banishing the dark and the idea that the onryo might still be behind me, still waiting for me to turn around and give her whatever might bring her peace. The birds began their song, and the wind began to whip around me.
I saw a small party of travelers, perhaps ten or twelve in number. I bowed my head and kept walking, my pace ensuring that I would be past them shortly, and hopefully before any of them attempted to invite me to join them. I would not want to intrude on their journey, and others would only impede my own. I had no need of companionship, nor to share whatever meager resources they were likely to have; I had my rice ball, and my robe, and my staff, and that was all I needed.
As I drew alongside them and began to pass them one by one, I paid little attention to them. There seemed to be a roughly equal number of men and women, with no children, but I watched my feet and the road, not their faces, so I cannot say for certain. Who they were was of no interest to me. Until I saw the elaborate slippers of the one who was leading the group, rimmed with gold and pointed upward at the toes. At the edges of my vision I saw the hem of his robe, a deep blue silk with golden tassels running from the edge, and the tips of ruby-stained ideograms just above that.
It was the clothing of a priest, and while I had passed the others without being noticed – their conversations amongst one another had not stopped or changed rhythm as I moved by them – he called out to me.
“Oh, sad one, why do you walk so?” he asked of me. I did not answer him. I did not know how to answer him. Anything I might say would lead only to further questions, a slower pace, and detainment on my path.
He was not dissuaded. He increased his pace to keep abreast of me.
“Little lost one, why do you cling to the road?” His voice was low, almost choking, and the sound of it put daggers to my heart for reasons I could not name.
“Do you not know the wonders that lie off the path? That home and beauty are to be found there?” I knew then that he was my enemy, trying to stop me from my goal, and I walked a little faster. I saw his feet slow, and then he was gone from my vision. I could sense him, still behind me. He had stopped his group with his own lack of movement, and I could no longer hear them talking to one another. But now they were of no import. I was past them, and away from them.
I walked my road. At sunset, I ate a single grain of rice, and breathed deeply of the scent of pickled fish at the center of the rice ball, and walked all through the dark hours once again.
As the new day came, I heard a group ahead of me. As before, I put my head down and walked onward, and as before they did not seem to notice me. Again, at the head of the group, I saw the bottom portion of the priest. The same priest. He spoke to me again.
“Come, little one. Please, rest yourself. Be at peace with yourself.”
He sounded calm and sure, but his words remained as daggers at my breast. Something in them was unpleasant – even repugnant – and I could not say why. Obviously, the idea that he would have me abandon my task was bad enough, but something else in his speech seemed to trouble me. I chanced a glance at him, sideways so as not to reveal that I was studying him, and saw he, too, carried a staff much like my father’s. But his had been decorated with a simple bell made of silver, and when he spoke, he shook it. It was the bell’s ringing that disturbed me, that made me ache so. Somehow I just knew.
“Please, go away,” I said to him, in my smallest, most respectful voice, and walked a little faster.
As before, he would not be deterred. He moved to keep up, and spoke again.
“You will waste your whole existence walking, and will have nothing but dust when the journey is over. Step off the path. I beg you,” he said. I shook my head, and hurried on.
He tried a third time. “Please. Your road is only darkness and sorrow. Step off the path, and rest awhile.”
I bowed my head, and pulled my robe more tightly around myself, and kept on. As before, he stopped and fell behind me, and I carried onward.
All through the day I walked, but while I had previously done so while only thinking of my goal, there was now a seed of doubt planted by the old priest. Was I ultimately on a fool’s errand, wasting my time? Were there really greater wonders to be had off the path than I would find at the journey’s end?
No, I decided. Such could not be. So I took out my rice ball, and ate my single grain, and breathed deep of the aroma, and walked farther.
Night came, and night left. There was no difference to me. On I went, until the day broke and yet again I came upon a group of travelers.
How, I thought, could they have gotten ahead of me again? I had walked all night. Surely they were not so blessed, and must stop. Surely the old priest would have made them stop, if only to remind them of his doctrine that amazing things were to be found away from the path rather than upon it. Would I not have noticed if they had passed me during the night, somehow moving more quickly than I?
I was not used to questions. I did not like them. They brought me doubt and fear, and these were not acceptable to me; I must walk the road. All would be well at the end.
So I moved, and as before, I passed them without notice until I reached the old priest and his vile bell, which I could now feel tugging at me each time he placed his staff against the ground. Their small silver jingle was enough to drive a soul to madness, I thought.
I heard him sigh, saw his feet falter for a moment, and hoped that this day he would not attempt to speak to me. Perhaps he would merely allow me to pass. But my hope was in vain.
“Day after day I see you, and nothing changes for you. Please. I beg of you, step off the path. You cannot keep this up forever.”
I smiled, and it felt strange upon my face. I am not a smiling child, and never was. Something about it felt mean-spirited as well. Aggressive and competitive, neither of which were words that my parents – the names of whom I had forgotten, I realized – or the other villagers would have used.
“I will do as I must, old man,” I said to him. This was quite bold for me, and a deliciously vile thrill rippled through me. “You have no authority to tell me what I must do.”
“And you will. Until you will not. All things end, little one. But it is your decision if they end with fondness and peace or anger and regret.”
“The only regret I have is listening to you and your bell, old fool.” This was bolder still. Never before had I insulted an elder, let alone a priest. It shocked me, but was also pleasant; I felt my smile grow wider still, my teeth feeling strange and large behind my lips. “Now go away and leave me be.”
I turned from him, and as before, he stopped and allowed me to carry on ahead.
I walked, as before, and as night came, I took a single grain from my rice ball. But unlike before, I was still hungry. My belly ached and my gullet cried out for more. But I would have no more. I would take my single grain and be satisfied, for it must last the rest of the journey, and Edo was very far.
Unlike other nights, I saw another traveler on the road. And unlike other times, I felt myself slowing to accommodate him. He was an older man, with a pack on his back that seemed laden with heavy objects that jingled and jangled as he walked. A wide-brimmed hat sat on his head, and he carried a staff in one hand and an abacus in the other. A merchant, I assumed, peddling his wares along the road or at the rest stops beside it.
I slowed, until I was keeping pace with him, though I kept myself very quiet and far enough back that he would not notice me. I don’t know why I did these things. Only that they seemed natural. I did not know why there were faint blue strands of mist twisting around the man, or why I felt a thick flood of saliva in my mouth looking at them. I did not know why this one man was enough to make me slow my step and think of something other than my path. But all of these things were true.
The merchant’s step began to slow. More and more frequently he mopped at his forehead to remove excess sweat, or glanced to the moon and stars as though gauging the time. Each time he slowed or stopped, I adjusted my pace to match him. Finally, he sat down, took off his pack and began rummaging through it. A moment later he had withdrawn a small tube, that he unrolled into a coarse tatami, and laid down upon it. It did not look all that comfortable, but he was snoring loudly only moments later.
I crept towards him, feeling my smile prickle the edges of my mouth. My hands reached out to him, to the tantalizing streamers of blue and white that each exhale produced from his toothless lips. I did not find it strange that my fingers were gaunt and skeletal, tipped with shining nails of silver, or that the moonlight shone through my hand to reveal the bones beneath.
It was all very natural.
Just as natural as grabbing at those tattered threads of energy and stuffing them into my mouth was.
Just as natural as deciding that was not nearly enough, that I must have more, and so battened my widening mouth upon his own, breathing deep of that azure substance was.
The hunger inside me, that for the first time had not been satiated by my single grain of rice that my sister had pressed into a ball for me – and what had her name been? I forget – had been roused. It fed until it could take no more, gorging itself on what I now knew to be his life force. It breathed deep and took it like the thieves and carrion crows would take their share when they found him in the morning.
Such is merely the way of the world.
I pulled away from him, sated. But only for a moment. Even as I saw that he was no longer breathing, I grew hungry again. My belly had emptied nearly as quickly as I had filled it, and there seemed to be no other sustenance in sight. I did the only thing I knew to do. I walked.
All through the night, and into the day. I did not see the priest or his group that day. Or the next. Or a hundred days after that. Or even a thousand.
I was never to see the priest again. But each night, I would take my grain of rice, and despite my starvation, despite my weariness, I never slept, only walked.
Some nights, I would find travelers like the merchant, and I would twist my hands into the lovely blue-white threads that came from them, and would tease them into shapes that pleased me before I ate them, always finishing by taking the very breath from their lungs, always hungry again just after I had finished and there was no more to eat. One night I found a group, young men and women, dressed very strangely and with much of their flesh on display, and as I tasted of them and drank of them, I could feel all the things they had done that day, such things as I would never have dreamed before I left my home.
But, the priest had warned me, all things must end. And this night, I saw no one on my road. I was very hungry, beyond any hunger I had ever known. I decided that only one extra grain would not hurt me – my sister’s rice ball had lasted me this long, why would it not last once again? – I took the ball from my robe and went to pluck a grain from it… but discovered all the grains were gone. There was only the small bit of fish that the rice had been packed around. One last bite.
I regarded it with equal parts frustration and fear and sorrow and hunger. I had given so much, had forgotten so many; I did not even remember what my own name was, if I had ever been given one. Who would have given me a name? I do not know. I had no parents, no home. My home has been the road. Always the road. And still I have not reached the end.
Holding the fish cake in my hand, I looked around, and saw wonders I cannot describe. Gone was the earthen path I had trod for more nights than I could possibly count. Instead there was a flat line of stone, marked with yellow and white chalk. All around were great metal beasts in shapes I had never believed possible, and brilliant lights, all the colors of the rainbow. Noise assaulted me – a grinding, harsh sound from the metal beasts, music that was discordant and impossibly loud to me pouring from buildings that I had never seen before, a thousand voices coming from thin air speaking languages that were foreign and yet familiar to me – and I quivered with fear.
My road was gone. But still there were the cherry blossoms to either side. Still I saw the old signposts with their crooked arrows. But beside them were other posts, with bright green signs and markings that I thought were letters but could not understand.
My road was gone. Perhaps, I thought, it has been gone for longer than you know. The voice in my head was not my own. It was the voice of the old priest who I had not seen for a thousand times a thousand nights and who I had not thought of in half that time.
I felt myself pulled back through my memories, and realized that each day and night as I walked, nothing had changed. I had trod the same course of miles thousands of times, paying no mind to the signposts or landmarks, knowing that the road would end in time. And of course it had. How long? I did not know. Could not know. My road was gone. My world was gone.
I pinched the last bit of fish between my bony fingers. Perhaps it was time for me to be gone as well.
I placed it between my split and shrunken lips, past my sharp and vicious teeth and onto my too-long and forked tongue.
Time for my walk to end.
I swallowed my final meal.