by Mari Ness
They say that before we were born, our mother gathered four cups and pounded plum blossoms and cherry bark and leaves from nine trees caught before they reached the ground into her powdered green tea, fresh as a spring after the departure of the winter snows. The tea hissed and bubbled and steamed, and she let it burn her mouth before tossing each cup into the sea, though each cup had been held by her grandmother and her grandmother’s grandmother before that. They say between sips, she muttered – and the whole village heard her, although none stood beside her – Cherry blossoms, free of wind, like a sleeping child. Cherry blossoms, free of wind, like a sleeping child.
She never told us what she meant by this, but nine months later, two daughters were born: one fair as cherry blossoms in the first spring, the second gnarled as cherry bark, with mismatched legs and eyes and mottled skin.
I am the ugly one.
My sister does not mind this, though I do. I hear the whispers, see the glances, the pitying looks at the stick I lean on. It will get easier in time, my sister assures me, but it never does.
She herself is the object of many stares as we walk; no matter how often people have seen her, they cannot stop looking at her beauty. So beautiful is she that the villagers even whisper that she might wed the daimyo himself, or one of his sons, should he ever stop by the village. No more than a hopeless tale woven by the wind, that. Whatever her beauty, whatever my face, we do not have the money to encourage a lord.
We play with the sons of the fishermen by the shore. One of them smiles at me and tells me to sing. I have the voice of a bird, he tells me, before laughing and plunging into the sea.
I hear the laughter of demons in the trees.
They say before any of us were born, this was a home of demons, sea-demons who had escaped their chains to scamper on the rocks, and then rebelled against returning to the darkness of the sea. The harsh rains we sometimes felt, the terrible waves that sometimes came when the sea rose, stealing all in its path, all of these were attempts by the sea to take back its demons. But too late, too late: the demons had found safety in the trees. As long as they had trees, they were safe from the sea.
The villagers might have cut down the trees, knowing this, knowing that they needed the sea for food. And knowing that, the demons would sometimes offer bargains: a way to catch more fish. A way to keep off the winter chills.
A way to give a woman children.
Even if the fish rotted faster than fish caught without demon aid. Even if warmer winters led to sicker summers.
Even if those children look like me.
We grow up. More and more speak of my sister’s beauty, urge my mother to take her to the city. My sister takes my hand in reassurance when this is said; she will not leave me. I do not think she can promise this, but I am funny, she says, and she will not live without laughter.
The men of the nearby villages begin to make offers, suggestions, for themselves and their sons.
The laughter from the woods takes a different tone. If I did not know better, I would almost describe it as greedy.
They say I have always been a storyteller, a liar. I cannot say if this is true, though I remember telling stories to my sister, who listened with wide eyes, always laughing and rolling over and over on the ground at any joke, heedless of her dark hair. I remember her ordering me to tell my tales to the village children, refusing to play with me until she and they had heard the tales, again and again, until they, too, were rolling on the ground.
“You will go to the city one day and tell your tales,” she said confidently.
I looked at my stick. The son of a fisherman, the one who said my voice was like a bird, had carved it for me with intricate pictures of the great tuna from the sea.
“I do not think they would welcome me,” I said quietly.
“Well,” she said carelessly. “Everyone says they would welcome me. And if they welcome me, they will welcome you.”
I could not quite believe that. But I could not bear to argue with her. Not over this.
“Why do we not use this teapot?” my sister asks.
My mother draws near and frowns. The teapot my sister holds is heavy, sturdy, brown, with a single leaf etched on the side. I do not like it much, but my sister loves trees.
“Because,” says my mother.
That is not an answer that will satisfy either of us, and we turn and frown at her in unison.
She sighs. “See, it is cracked.” She points to a large line alone the side.
“Then why do we keep it?” asks my ever practical sister.
My mother gives us the tightest of smiles. “It was the teapot I used before you were born.” Which is not an answer.
“What cracked it?” I ask.
My mother has turned from us both. “You might say the wind.”
They say my father was a skilled fisherman, who brought much wealth to his family through the sea, before he was taken by a sea demon in a storm some months before our birth.
Many months before our birth.
The villagers could count. And they had seen my mother standing on the edge of the sea, a teapot in hand, seen her climb into the trees, muttering words they could not hear.
And they say – some of them say – that the shape of my father entered our house, days after the sea demon had stolen him.
They did not say this until long afterwards. She had not wanted to be without children.
As we grow, the voices in the trees grow sharper, more distinct.
They say to place tatami mats just so, to place tables here, and tables there, to keep mattresses tightly rolled during the day, to keep a color here and a color there. For harmony, they say, and to ward off demons.
They do not say what happens to those who do not have the funds or the space for such careful placement.
When I speak of voices in the trees, my sister begins to doubt me.
She cannot hear them.
“Perhaps you are being taken by a fox,” she says, and I suddenly feel cold.
“My father says you’ll end up back in the woods someday,” the fisherman’s boy, the one who has carved the tuna on my stick, tells me.
“My sister says I’ll go to the city, to tell my tales.”
The boy shakes his head. “My father says you’ll go back to the woods.” His eyes are serious. I realize, suddenly, that this is not one of his plays. “You’ll be rejoining your own people, once your sister marries.”
I look at the ocean, tears pricking my eyes. “I want to stay by the sea.”
The boy does not answer.
They say that, having fled the sea, the demons could not even bear to look upon it. Some others said that the demons had shifted into foxes – although this was loudly decried by others, who said that the fox women were their own people, quite untrustworthy and tricky on their own, but with no connection to the sea, and quite fond of bathing.
But sometimes, when I looked into the trees, and heard the laughter in the leaves, I thought I could see their branches bending away from the sea.
“A marriage has been arranged,” my mother tells us.
She does not look at me; it is obvious who the marriage is for. My sister catches her breath. “No,” she says.
“Yes,” my mother replies. “He will take your sister as well.”
“No,” my sister repeats, reaching out for my hand and squeezing it.
The singing in the trees is loud that night. I say nothing of it to my sister.
They say a monk once held a teapot, and watched demons dance from it, only he thought they were badgers. He tried to use the teapot to make money in the streets, but the demons took the gold, and he could bring nothing to his temple but wisdom.
My sister will not speak of her marriage, will only laugh and shake her head. I want to talk about it– nothing else looms larger in our lives, nothing else has meaning. But she will not.
At night, when we roll out our mattresses, she turns her face to the wall, not looking at me. But I can still hear her sobbing.
They say when we were old enough, my mother sent my sister to purchase fish. So lovely was her skin and hair that the fishermen stumbled over their words and forgot the price of their fish.
They say she then sent me, and the fishermen, upon seeing me, dropped their fish into the sand and mud.
My sister leaves us between one breath and another.
It comes to me as nothing more than a shivering, a sense, a dream, but it is enough to have me cease my bargaining and hurry home as swiftly as I might, ignoring the pain that comes from this rush. I nearly forget to remove my shoes in my eagerness, my hope to be proven wrong.
I am not.
“She has gone to the woods,” I say to my mother dully, not knowing how I know, but knowing I know.
“She is the sort of plaything they would want,” my mother whispers.
The light in the house flickers.
My sister’s favorite story was of the teapot that produced marvelous things – sake, ink, poems, and clever little talking animals. She asked me to make the sounds of each animal as it left the pot, and I obliged, to watch her roll over and over on the ground, the dirt soiling her so beautiful hair.
I take the teapot they say my mother made her green tea in, the tea that made children of cherry blossom and bark, from its place in the corner. My mother is staring into her own tea cup, filled from the pot and water that has never felt the touch of demons.
I do not tell her that I will be back. I do not know if I will be back.
The teapot cracks in my hands as I walk towards the trees.
They say that a demon may be caught with mirrors, tricked with flowers, tempted with tea.
They also say this never works.
It takes longer than I would wish to climb to the trees, and the wind is already chilled before I reach them. I look into their leaves, remembering the tale of the good man and his wife, who made their cherry blossoms bloom in winter.
But these are not cherry trees, and I have nothing to make them bloom.
I sit. This is where I have heard the laughter, and we are far enough from the sea that if the demons are here, they may come. My sister may have gone further, but I cannot. But perhaps the demons might take me there.
They say my sister might not really be my sister, that my mother did not merely mutter over a cup of tea, but dallied with the little men of the woods, or perhaps taken a fox to bed.
These are not tales I choose to retell.
The first demon arrives in the early morning, as I am nearly asleep. He is even uglier than I expected, and begins by taunting me and jumping. I sit quietly. If my tales are right, this is not the demon I need.
Another demon comes, and then another, until I am surrounded by them, ugly little demons, misshapen just like me. It occurs to me that I have never felt more at home. It occurs to me that I have never felt so afraid.
“My sister,” I say each night, each morning. “My sister.” Again, and again, chanting it. And in so saying, make it true.
For she is, indeed, my sister. Who could not believe this, with our squabbling?
“We shall throw bones for her,” I say. “My sister.”
I know nothing of the games, but in my tales, demons have always thrown bones, and so I believe it true.
“And why should we throw these bones with you?”
I place the teapot between us. “Because I am one of you. Because I came from this pot.”
They move closer, twisted faces eager. One or two reach out to touch it, their hands recoiling at its feel. They look at it and look at me, and chatter in a language I do not know, a language I do not want to know.
“And you may take it back, for her life. If you win.”
“Done,” says a voice, and I find I have to sit down.
They say many things of balance, of chance. Too many to listen to, or know.
A demon with red eyes and green hair hands me a cup of bones. I stare at the cup. If this game can be won by some strategy, some trick, I do not know it. The chief demon sees my confusion. His eyes crinkle, and he laughs.
“Tell her of the game,” he says, and they do.
The words might as well go unspoken. This is no game of humans, but of demons, and I have been too long in the human world to grasp it. I will have to throw the bones and trust to the judgement of demons. And my sister.
“For my sister,” I say, and throw the bones.
The demons lean over the bones, gesturing excitedly. They have assured me – though I have no reason to believe them – that this will be a game fought fairly, that my own blood will keep them from cheating. I sit quietly. The demon throws his bones. More chatter. The cup is handed to me.
“Again,” they say, and I toss.
Again, and again. The sun rises in the sky and burns upon me, and slowly sets, and the wind rises again, and still I throw bones with the demons. Three of them are keeping score, arguing one with another. I cannot tell if I am winning or losing. My sister, my sister. I have come for my sister. Saying that makes it true. I say it over each bone, each toss.
The bones I toss begin to glimmer in the night.
The demons, seeing this, begin to toss their bones ever faster. I chant my words over each toss, each bone. Their bones begin to gleam red. The sun rises. I am shaking, shaking, and still throwing bones.
They say a man once tried to play a game with a fox. In the winter his wife found only his bones, dry with age.
A woman once tried to play a game with another fox, and found a cherry tree in blossom behind her house.
Three days. The demons do not tire, but I do; I can barely see, barely hear. My world has sunk to no more than this, the tossing of the bones and the muttering of words, until hairy hands come down on mine and the bone tossing stops.
“A tie,” says one demon in decided fashion.
I struggle to free my hands. “Then let us play more.”
“No,” says another demon. “This game grows tedious. And it will have no winner.”
Sister, I think. Sister, sister.
“But you have played well enough for a trade.”
I am so tired that the world at first make no sense. “A trade?”
A dark blue furred demon leans forward, pushing his face into mine. “A trade. Your sister, for the teapot.”
If I were not so tired, if I did not know how much it would hurt, I would leap for joy.
“Done,” I say.
The demons caper and sing in glee as they leave, scampering into the trees, and suddenly I wonder if I have done the right thing after all.
They say the village children once laughed at me as I stumbled about with my stick, trying to keep up with their games.
Until my sister threw rocks at them.
Only one demon remains. My eyes are too tired to see him clearly. “Do you know what happens, if we keep this pot?”
I do not know. I shake my head.
“You will have no demon children in your midst,” he says. “No more crooked, lame, ugly children –” I am about to cry out, but something in his eyes stops me. “And no more children so lovely as to stop men in their tracks. Just ordinary children, the same as you can find in any village anywhere. Ordinary children who cannot hear the laughter in the trees.”
My fists clench. “Give it back,” I say.
More laughter. “And why should we do that?”
I sigh. “I will play you again for it.”
My sister’s voice, cool and clear. “No. This time I will.”
They say now that they will not play games with us, me and my sister. Especially when the wind is blowing in the trees.
My sister decides not to wed at all. She says this laughing, but her eyes are clear, and my mother does not press the point. She has danced enough with demons, and will now bend in the rice fields, listening to the wind.
And I, I marry the young fisherman, the young man who liked the sound of my voice, because he is solid, solid, unlike the demons I tossed bones with, and his mouth tastes gentle as cherry blossoms. We place the teapot in a corner of the room, as my mother did, and if the demons laugh at us, I, at least, can no longer hear.
BIO: Mari Ness lives in central Florida, with a still scraggly rose garden that she’s hoping to bring magic to. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including Fantasy, Cabinet des Fées, and Ideomancer. She keeps a disorganized blog at mariness.livejournal.com, or you can follow her on Twitter at mari_ness.
Mari Ness is donating her proceeds from this story towards Papaveria Press’ Help Japan fund.
The featured artwork is from a Heian period illustration of the Tale of Genji and is in the public domain.